Although American literature is a standard subject in the American college curriculum, a century ago few people thought it should be taught there. Elizabeth Renker uncovers the complex historical process through which American literature overcame its image of aesthetic and historical inferiority to become an important field for academic study and research. Renker's extensive original archival research focuses on four institutions of higher education serving distinct regional, class, race and gender populations. She argues that American literature's inferior image arose from its affiliation with non-elite schools, teachers and students, and that it had to overcome this social identity in order to achieve status as serious knowledge. Renker's revisionary analysis is an important contribution to the intellectual history of the United States and will be of interest to anyone studying, teaching or researching American literature.