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Ye olde standards
Making the cut in the Norton Anthology
Two thick volumes of poetry and prose have served as the foundation of college literature surveys since first appearing in 1962. They make up the Norton Anthology of English Literature, and in 2006 they entered their eighth edition, under the editorship of Stephen Greenblatt, whose book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare was a finalist in 2004–05 for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. On November 8 in Gasson Hall, Greenblatt, the prime mover in the 1980s of the school of literary criticism known as “new historicism,” spoke to an audience of more than a hundred students and faculty about how the Norton Anthology was both stretched and winnowed on his watch.
New historicism holds that to understand a play or poem, one must first understand the time and place that gave birth to it. Opponents of the school, which has been controversial, complain that new historicists spend so much time describing and passing judgment on bygone eras according to 1990s taboos that they lose sight of art’s intrinsic value. Early in his lecture Greenblatt, a slim man in his sixties with short dark hair and a sprightly gaze, introduced two key terms: resonance, which he uses to describe the relation between a work of art and its time and place; and wonder, which he defines as a work’s ability “to stop the viewer [or reader] in his tracks.” The anthology, he said, was essentially “a resonance machine,” meant not to evoke wonder so much as to capture crucial moments in the history of English literature and language. Parts of the “machine” include “periodization”—the division of the anthology into sections with titles like “The Middle Ages” and “The Romantic Period”—and introductions to each section and each author that put a heavy emphasis on biography and cultural history.
Inclusion in the Norton Anthology may not earn a work admission to the canon—that apocryphal list of Great Works that every English professor keeps in his or her head—but it doesn’t hurt. Thus, much attention gets paid to which works make the cut in each edition. The new edition, Greenblatt said, includes 68 women writers, more than eight times as many as in the first edition. It also includes works in English by writers such as V.S. Naipaul of Trinidad (the short story “One of Many,” about a Bombay servant transplanted to Washington, D.C.); Salman Rushdie of India (whose “The Prophet’s Hair” is a magic realist tale about the effect of an Islamic relic on a well-to-do family); and Chinua Achebe of Nigeria (Things Fall Apart, about the clash of cultures—Ibo and British—in the colonial period); as well as lesser-known voices from other former colonies.
“I had never heard of some of these [writers] when I was in grad school,” Greenblatt acknowledged. The anthology has “come to terms with the fact that English is a world language,” he said, adding that “whose voices will be heard is an important issue to me.”
New content creates dilemmas for a Norton Anthology editor because, at close to 3,000 pages (and four pounds) for each volume, the anthology is already an unwieldy and costly item. As with any product, market research—in this case, periodic surveys of professors who use the anthology—helps guide decision-making. Which works do the professors love? Which ones do they hate? Which do they actually use in the classroom? The answers to these questions, especially the last, have led to painful cuts. Greenblatt recalled that the need to excise parts of Byron’s verse epic Don Juan “had Mike Abrams”—the Cornell University English professor who preceded Greenblatt as editor—”close to tears.” In a reverential voice, Greenblatt quoted a line from another poetic work, by the Elizabethan courtier-poet Fulke Greville. “That’s wonderful,” he said, “but we knew from reader surveys that three [professors] used it in seven years.”
Market research has its flaws. Greenblatt recounted, as a cautionary tale, the decision to include, in an earlier edition, The Tragedy of Mariam (1613), the first published tragedy in English by a woman. The Longman Anthology, which Greenblatt described as a “more politically correct” competitor of the Norton books, already included the tragedy, an unrewarding slog for most readers (“Her skin will ev’ry curtlax edge refell”). The surveys of professors indicated a clamoring to include the work in Norton, too, and thus “a fairly large chunk of it” was added, Greenblatt said. “And then no one taught it, and Longman dropped it in their next edition.”
Like market research, resonance also has its limits as a guide to literature, as Greenblatt admitted near the end of his talk. He said he hoped there would be times “when all the voices of the huge resonance machine stop, and you can simply be alone with a literary text.” At such moments, ideally, the voice of the poet may yield “the effect of reverence,” he said, “even if the topic is something profane—eros, for example.”
With that, he read from a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder (1503–42) that, without being explicit, was about as erotic as a poem could get in Wyatt’s day—or most other literary periods including the present one, for that matter. After two stanzas, he stopped and said, “There isn’t room to finish here, but the poem can be found in its entirety in the Norton Anthology, any edition.”
David Reich is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.
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