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Against the Anthology

The first Norton Anthology of American Literature was published 35 years ago this year. According to its editors at the time, it set itself the laudable goal of redressing “the long neglect of women writers” and doing “justice to the contributions of black writers to American literature.” To that end, it printed selections from the work of 29 women and 14 African-Americans, many of whom had never been included in an anthology of American literature.

The selections were viewed by some as insufficient, but it was a significant improvement on previous anthologies. The 1938 Oxford Anthology of American Literature printed the work of 12 women, but the 1952 edition of the popular Major American Writers included selections from only Emily Dickinson and the novelist Ellen Glasgow.

In subsequent editions, the Norton did further “redressing,” adding the work of Lorine Niedecker, Claude McKay, Michael S. Harper, and many other accomplished writers. But even a cursory examination of the most recent edition shows that something has also gone wrong.

At five volumes and nearly 6000 pages, the latest edition of the Norton, published in 2011, is almost twice as long as the 1979 edition. Despite this, selections from what the first edition called the “traditional masterpieces of American literature” have been greatly reduced. Walt Whitman has gone from around 70 to 30 poems. Henry David Thoreau has gone from over 200 pages to a little over 100. Herman Melville has lost nearly 100 pages, and Edgar Allen Poe has gone from 150 to 100 pages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, selections of William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have been cut in half, and William Bartram, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, and others have disappeared entirely.

Some of the extra space is used for previously neglected writers, but a fair amount is also used for speeches and essays on topics such as the plight of Native Americans, slavery and civil rights, women’s suffrage, American Exceptionalism, World War I, and terrorism. To give one example, there are roughly 230 pages in the latest Norton of non-literary texts (speeches, political essays, and autobiographies) related to the customs and life of Native Americans. This is only slightly fewer than the pages devoted to Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson combined.

Context is important in the study of literature, and many of the historical texts included in the Norton are interesting, but they can also bury the literature. Each of the five volumes in the 2011 Norton contains at least one special section on a political topic. In the accompanying teacher’s guide, while a mere five pages are devoted to using the anthology to teach “Major American Authors,” there are two chapters and over 30 pages on how to engage the issues of gender, race, war, and identity explored in the anthology. There is nothing on beauty, truth, or the pleasure of reading.

Other anthologies have followed suit over the years. While Longman’s two-volume anthology is less enamored with politics than the Norton, it nevertheless sells itself for its “contextual selections.” The Bedford too is committed to helping “students grasp the cultural, material, and social conditions in which literary works are produced.”

One of the great pleasures of reading the work of a particular period is experiencing how messy and diverse it is. In the 1950s, for example, T.S. Eliot was publishing his later plays, Allen Ginsberg was howling in California, Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award, Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Walker Percy was writing essays for America and Commonweal, J.F. Powers was publishing stories in The New Yorker, Kurt Vonnegut was writing for Collier’s, Robert Frost published Hard Not To Be King, and John Ashbery won the Yale Younger Poets Prize.


This sort of messiness goes unhighlighted in the Norton and many other anthologies. Neither Walker Percy nor J.F. Powers are included in the work, and the others are separated by an entire volume and special sections on modernism and postmodernism. While tacitly committed to diversity, the Norton offers a superficial and perhaps even irrelevant kind when it comes to literature—one determined by gender, race, and the increasingly narrow research interests of English professors more so than by style or ideas. As with all anthologies, the selections in the most recent Norton are also too excerpted or too small to give readers an overarching sense of the work of all but a few writers, much less how they might differ from others.

In 1979, the Norton editors hoped to create “a book to be read for pleasure.” Today, it is a book read for credit. It presents literature as secondary to history and as something to be sifted for proof of political theories rather than appreciated. No wonder most students leave it and the reading of great works behind when they graduate.

While the problems of college English are many and complex, getting rid of the contemporary anthology might be one way of reintroducing some life in the classroom. It might also show students how valuable and relevant great literature can be on its own.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Against the Anthology"

#1 Comment By BenjaminL On August 22, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

Can one recommend a substitute volume to use instead, dating from before the rot set in?

#2 Comment By Christopher On August 22, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

two chapters and over 30 pages of how to engage the issues of gender, race, war, and identity explored in the anthology. There is nothing on beauty, truth, or the pleasure of reading.

I think this is a false dichotomy. Or maybe that the former can help the latter more than you think.

For some reason the first example that comes to my mind is completely non-literary example of Will Eisner’s comic The Spirit. The Spirit is a well-drawn, often artistically innovative adventure comic from the 40s, which also happens to contain a fantastically racist black sidekick character named [1]

A minstrel-show character like Ebony is not beautiful or true, and in fact inhibits the pleasure of reading what are otherwise some fairly entertaining stories.

One way to at least somewhat recapture all those things is to analyze and contextualize that sort of minstrel show caricature in American history.

Let’s face it; English literature has a long history of depicting race, gender and war in ways that are neither beautiful nor true, even in literature which otherwise has a lot of merit. You aren’t going to teach a love of reading without addressing some of the reasons we might not love certain classics.

#3 Comment By David Naas On August 22, 2014 @ 11:14 pm

The whole idea of the English Lit “anthology” has struck me as particularly silly. It is a “Reader’s Digest” approach to literature, covering 50 Great Works in One Semester.

Rather than piece-wise renderings of a dribble of this and a patch of that, It has always struck me far better to read fewer works more intensively.

But, what do I know?

#4 Comment By isaacplautus On August 23, 2014 @ 11:31 am

The public might not read, on average, as much as it used to. But it still reads quite a bit; just not the books which are accepted as “postmodern” literature. J.K. Rowling showed us that there is still a massive hunger in the public for fiction which tells a story. Would that more “literary” writers could catch up with her.

#5 Comment By Mike Ehling On August 23, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

I’m sorry. I’m really confused. This is the thirty-fifth anniversary? We had a Norton Anthology of American Literature back in my high school days, and I definitely go back more than thirty-five years.

But Wikipedia confirms that the “first” edition indeed was published in 1979. Please, please, what am I missing here?

#6 Comment By Micah Mattix On August 23, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

You may be remembering the Norton Anthology of *English* Literature, which I think was first published in the 60s.

#7 Comment By M_Young On August 23, 2014 @ 7:16 pm

Demographics -> Power -> representation of art and literature. An America where the majority population is not only not biologically much connected with the eras of Whitman and Melville or even the Beats, but stem from cultures that have historical grievances– real or imagined– against the culture that produced those authors will progressively erase their old historic ‘enemy’.

#8 Comment By Mike Ehling On August 24, 2014 @ 3:57 am

Alright, alright, now I remember. I absolutely KNEW we used a Norton anthology (single volume, hardcover, dust jacket) in an AmLit survey course in my junior year of high school (’67-’68, Malvern Prep, T.A. McKenna teacher) but I couldn’t find my old copy to show you an image of it.

But thank heavens for AbeBooks! Using their advanced search I was able to force a date prior to 1969 and now I realize that the anthology was titled The American Tradition in Literature and the editors (Bradley, Beatty & Long) definitely ring a bell with me. In fact, I think we even referred to the book as “Bradley, Beatty & Long” rather than by its official title. We used the single-volume edition.

I do think of The American Tradition in Literature as a Norton anthology, though, even if it wasn’t technically titled as such, and of course it was published by W.W. Norton.

#9 Comment By N. W. Smith On August 24, 2014 @ 9:20 am

Mr. Mattix,

Thank you for this essay; it made my day. I recall my own American Lit anthology introducing Flannery O’Connor as a subverter of racial, gender, and class norms in the South. I suppose these words were meant to signify that she was a Roman Catholic.

#10 Comment By M_Young On August 25, 2014 @ 3:23 am

“The whole idea of the English Lit “anthology” has struck me as particularly silly. It is a “Reader’s Digest” approach to literature, covering 50 Great Works in One Semester.”

Maybe if we called it a ‘curated collection’ of English Literature….

#11 Comment By HT On August 25, 2014 @ 8:54 am

Permit me once again to recommend an actually very eye-opening and pungent (and largely ignored) anthology: Keith Tuma’s “Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry”, which provides a very instructive counterpart to Larkin’s “Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse” and the sort of tired TLS/New Yorker consensus that the latter represents. (Maybe Tuma, an American, will do us a similarly brief and pungent favor treating the last century’s American poets some day.)

The Oxford “English” anthologies that appeared up through the eighties or thereabouts are much better than the Norton, which was a snooze even back in the sixties. I haven’t looked at the fairly recent Library of America volumes.