The Cabinet of Irish Literature: A Historical Perspective on Irish Anthologies *

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I. THE "CULTURE OF THE EXCERPT"

AMONG the flurry of reviews and commentaries that followed the publication of volumes I to III of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing in 1991, those of most enduring interest moved beyond the heat of the moment to a more general reflection on the role of anthologies themselves. Francis Mulhern's 1993 essay, "A Nation, Yet Again" began, for example, with the cautionary pronouncement, by then all too evident, that "[a]nthologies are strategic weapons in literary politics." (1) Mulhern acknowledged that "authored texts of all kinds--poems, novels, plays, reviews, analyses--play more or less telling parts in a theatre of shifting alliances and antagonisms," but he argued for the special rhetorical force of anthologies in their "simulation of self evidence."

   Here it is as it was: the very fact of re-presentation, flanked by
   equally self-attesting editorial learning, deters anyone so merely
   carping as a critic. And so, in principle, whole corpuses, genres,
   movements and periods can be "finished"--resolved, secured,
   perfected or, as the case may be, killed off. Anthological
   initiatives may be purely antiquarian, but more often they are not.

As early as 1984, Seamus Deane's first public mooting of the idea of "a comprehensive anthology" was strongly opposed by poet and critic Eilean Ni Chuilleanain. (2) And immediately after FDA's publication in 1991, she presented one of the most memorably discomfiting evaluations:

   It is the trap of all anthologies: by "defining," that is excluding,
   they create a false inclusiveness in which the invisible exiles
   somehow do not count. Every claim to comprehensiveness is thus a
   devaluing of difference and so of the reality of a literary culture,
   past or present.... It is not the wrong choices or the predominance
   of pressure groups over individual talents, or the sexism--all of
   which are so evident--but the turning away of attention from the
   ground where the action is happening to the figures of
   the international talent-spotters half-visible behind their
   glassed-in gallery. (3)

Read from an international perspective, the Irish debate about anthologization and its omissions may appear a very late entry into the Anglo-American canon wars of the 1980s. On the other hand, the above reflections anticipate increasing recent attention to the anthology as a distinct literary genre, attention evident in works such as Barbara Benedict's Making the Modern Reader: Cultural Mediation in Early Modern Literary Anthologies (1996), Anne Ferry's Tradition and the Individual Poem: An Inquiry into Anthologies (2000, and Leah Price's The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot (2000). Overall, these investigations share an investment in the significance of the anthology--viewed most positively by Ferry who claims that its influence can be discerned "in virtually all the revisionary moments in literary history since the sixteenth century." (4)

The study of anthologies recently entered into a rare level of media coverage of a young academic's career; in November 2002 a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times reported a "bidding war" between Harvard and UCLA over Leah Price, a scholar of Victorian literature. Sardonically, the reporter remarked that her specializations included "the role played by--gasp--abridgements in the role of the novel." (5) Yet Price's engaging study of the anthology's role in the rise of the novel--a genre that, as she shows, forms a test case "within a culture of the excerpt"--is explicitly informed by the current economics of publishing. She notes that because much of today's market is dependent on college survey courses, among the volumes of poetry published, only anthologies can hope for mass-market success. Such economics, declares Price, have made "poem" nearly synonymous with "anthology-piece." (6) Echoing John Guillory's influential shift in emphasis from the "evaluative" to the "institutional" as the key factor determining canon-formation, (7) she insists that anthologies do more than inform us of who's in, who's out: "They determine not simply who gets published or what gets read, but who reads and how. …