The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. Established in 1890, the University of Chicago consists of The College, various graduate programs, interdisciplinary committees organized into four academic research divisions and seven professional schools. Beyond the arts and sciences, Chicago is also well known for its professional schools. The university currently enrolls approximately 5,000 students in the College and around 15,000 students overall.

Bellairs earned his masters degree in 1960 from the university, and returned in the mid-1960s to enroll for dissertation work that eventually went unfinished.

Bellairs on Campus

Choosing Chicago

That Bellairs would be attending graduate school was almost a given, Alfred Myers pointing out that "having an undergraduate degree in English doesn't really open many alluring doors career-wise."  Myers also doesn't feel Bellairs was especially attracted to teaching per se, but continuing one's education with a more advanced degree was the usual course of action and college English teaching was one of the more attractive of callings[1].

Bellairs said in passing the only other graduate school he had considered was Columbia, a choice possibly influenced by the two professors at Notre Dame that had the strongest effect on him, being Joseph Duffy and Frank O'Malley.  Duffy attended Columbia as an undergraduate and O'Malley described its English Department to Bellairs as "a bunch of great names that you never see.[1]"  Ultimately Bellairs chose the University of Chicago: friends like Alfred Myers would be there and both were familiar with the city from numerous visits as undergraduates at Notre Dame.

Bellairs, like all students who were not independently wealthy, would not have been able to afford graduate school without some sort of scholarship. Potential candidates didn't have to be much more than a graduate student in good standing to get some kind of support, assuming the university was well enough funded. The Woodrow Wilson scholarship awarded to Bellairs at Notre Dame was slanted towards future college instructors, but because universities were flooded with promising young scholars produced by the Wilson scholarship program, these universities had, in turn, the task of finding money to support them after their first year. Bowen believes that because of this the Wilson Foundation later came up with some additional money in the form of another grant. Bellairs was the recipient of this Wilson Special Grant, awarded by University of Chicago rather than through a national competition, as well as the La Verne Noyes Fellowship, given to direct blood descendant of a United States Army or Navy World War I veteran whose military service was terminated by death or an honorable discharge.

The Student Body

Compared to Notre Dame and South Bend, Chicago was nirvana, offering museums, restaurants, book and music stores, theaters, and other attractions that tend to congregate around a large university. Its student culture was different, too, with a rather brash and rather leftist undergraduate student body that Myers describes as searching for a cause - any cause - to rally around at the tail-end of the civil rights movement and in those relatively tranquil pre-Vietnam days.

"To quote one of John's friends, sardonically, 'They're ready to form a march on the aquarium to free the fish!' It is of course a brilliant university, with over 70 Nobel Laureates to its name, far more than any other school anywhere in the world. Because the Philosophy Department is very big on the Greek philosophers and Saint Thomas Aquinas, the traditional joke about Chicago is that it's 'a Baptist university where agnostic professors teach Catholic philosophers to Jews.'[1]"
Another longtime friend, Robert Yaple, describes the large campus as being, in those days, a "port of missing men" for graduate students:
"Students there always developed a certain reputation, regardless of the degree of normalcy they possessed. In some ways, it was a pretentious amalgam of post-Ivy Leaguer and pre-Hippie; in others, it was a triumph of laissez-faire eccentricity. I've not done any research on the subject, or scientific sampling, but I would guess that about a third eventually left with the degree they'd come for (though it often took a dozen years or more). Another third left without it, but still managed to right themselves and have decent lives (though scarcely what anyone would term 'conventional'). And the rest simply vanished.[2]"


This is the first time I have been able to stop to write a coherent letter since I got yours. I just finished my second quarter at the Aristotelian Utopia, and if things fall rightly, I will be taking the M.A. final in June.[3]
Main article: University of Chicago Courses

Academic life quickly became more intense and demanding. Myers recalls Joseph Duffy warning his students that they would find graduate school a unique experience: many a student going through the motions could become depressed by the amount of work required, the relatively uninspiring nature of much of it, and the pain of having to get along on very little money.  Bellairs "worked his butt off" during his time there, Myers relates, as well as that one of Bellairs's professors informed the class that "you're not here to enjoy English literature; you're here to learn about it.[1]"

As time passed, however, fellow graduate student (and one-time room-mate) John Drew recalls that he, Bellairs, and numerous others in their circle of acquaintances developed strong reservations about the graduate program.

"It all seemed rather Gradgrindian and none of us wanted to go on to do a Ph.D. No doubt the faculty would have regarded us as ill-disciplined amateurs, mere dilettantes, and no doubt they would have been right. Much as we hated them for their joylessness, they did teach us to read more closely.[4]"
Bowen recalls exchanging a series of letters with Bellairs on how much difference there really was between undergraduate and graduate study in the same subject:
"That English department was the defender of the Aristotelian school of literary criticism, created in the 1920s and based on the principles enunciated in Aristotle's Poetics. Although the faculty at Chicago was alone in espousing this method, they included some brilliant and very self-confident critics who did not hesitate to condemn what they saw as the errors and excesses of other schools. I would be extremely surprised if they did not encourage their students to take the same position.[5]"
Bellairs himself may have been inspired when he wrote some literary criticisms while in Minnesota that Bowen thinks read suspiciously like possible rewrites of essays written for class.

As far as individual classes, Bellairs took one course on the eighteenth-century English novel.  In a letter to Charles Bowen, Bellairs regaled some of the amusingly absurd episodes he encountered and Bowen notes can almost quote from memory Bellairs's description of one novel:

"An aristocratic villain lures the innocent heroine into a bagnio, plies her with 'soporific macaroons,' and has his will with her. "The resulting child, John told me, is later made legitimate by Act of Parliament. Perhaps you can find someone who didn't abandon the study of English literature as early as I did and can identify this work.[5]"
Somewhere in his coursework Bellairs had to deal with learning a foreign language. Myers notes that Bellairs satisfied the requirement by teaching himself enough French from a book, not from a college course and not with audio recordings[1].

Bernard Markwell remembers that Bellairs took Ernest Sirluck's seminar on John Milton one semester and "writing a witty, last minute paper on Lucca Signorelli's frescoes in the Orvieto Cathedral being an influence on Paradise Lost." It goes without saying there wasn't any influence and Markwell identifies the essay as being “full of nonsensical wit, a kind of dry run for Saint Fidgeta.[6]" We're told he received only an A in class.

From his coursework Bellairs discovered a plethora of authors and literary works that he would later incorporate into his novels:


The requirements for the Master of Arts degree in Literature took nine months (three quarters) and included passing a comprehensive examination based on a list of 90 book-length works. Marilyn Fitschen says that John spent the summer preparing for and taking the exam, allowing him to complete his coursework by June 1960[7]. He was awarded his degree at the September commencement and immediately afterwards began teaching part-time in Gary, Indiana.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Correspondence with Alfred Myers.
  2. Correspondence with Robert Yaple.
  3. Correspondence from John Bellairs to Charles Bowen (1960).
  4. Correspondence with John Drew.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Correspondence with Charles Bowen.
  6. Correspondence with Bernard Markwell (2003).
  7. Correspondence with Marilyn Fitschen.