Cultures of the commonplace
The kind of anthology most familiar to academic literary critics today— delimited by nationality, arranged by chronology—was unknown in Richardson's lifetime. The anthology itself is much older, as we have seen. But the defeat of perpetual copyright in 1774 changed the use to which the form was put. Only once the legal status of earlier works came to diverge from that of new ones did English-language anthologies take on the retrospective function (and the academic audience) that they maintain today. Timely miscellanies of new works gave way to timeless gleanings from the backlist. On or about 1774, as the research of Barbara Benedict and Trevor Ross has shown, literary history became anthologists'job. 1
A generation of late-eighteenth-century anthologies established not only the content of the canon to date, but also the rules by which future literature would be transmitted, notably the expectation that every anthology-piece bear a signature and that its signatory be dead. 2 Even more important than their ambition to consolidate a national tradition, however, was the near-monopoly that a few school anthologies achieved by the end of the century, allowing large numbers of schoolchildren to share the experience of reading not just the same anthology-pieces but the same anthologies. Looking back on the Elegant Extracts: or Useful and Entertaining Passages in Prose Selected for the Improvement of Scholars in Classical and other Schools first published by Vicesimus Knox in 1784, an 1816 edition could boast that the “uniformity of English books, in schools” which enabled “all the students of the same class, provided with copies of the same book, … to read it together” would have been logistically unthinkable a few generations ago. The class reciting in unison provided an image for a culture cemented not only by the affordability but by the ubiquity of a few standard collections. 3
Like other late-eighteenth-century traditions, however, those anthologies backdated their own invention. A companion volume of
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Publication information: Book title: The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot. Contributors: Leah Price - Author. Publisher: Cambridge University Press. Place of publication: Cambridge, England. Publication year: 2000. Page number: 67.
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