Teaching Ethnic American Literary Anthologies

By Jablon, Rachel Leah | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Teaching Ethnic American Literary Anthologies


Jablon, Rachel Leah, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

By comparing and contrasting the elements of W.W. Norton and Company's two ethnic American anthologies--The Norton Anthology of African American Literature and Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology--I show that Norton prefers one anthology to the other, probably for reasons of potential market value. Norton's "A-list" anthologies, such as The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, are privy to publication opportunities that Norton's "B-list" anthologies, such as Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, apparently are not. This comparative analysis demonstrates differences between the two anthologies in such elements as their titles, covers, contents, numbers of pages, treatments of language diversity, and integrations of non-print media. In light of various political and economic factors that contribute to the anthologizing process, I offer a schema whereby anthologies can be taught effectively.

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W.W. Norton & Company's two ethnic American anthologies are The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, and Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, edited by Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein. The volumes adhere to Norton's prescribed formats for the two main series of the publishing company's literary anthologies, though they share several of Norton's stock features: "the same tried-and-true layout and graphic design, structuring principles, and conventions of annotation" (Eichelberger 116). They also follow chronological outlines that feature descriptive titles for each historical period and literary movement. The similarities end there, and the differences surface beyond these structural principles. The implications of the differences indicate the preference that Norton gives to Gates and McKay's volume. When using these anthologies as instructional resources--given the politics of canonization--teachers must keep in mind that literary traditions cannot be bound by a single books' covers.

Anthologies easily identified by the "The Norton Anthology of ..." format of their titles comprise Norton's chief series (Hellerstein, Telephone Interview) and usually include texts that are widely considered to be "great works" of literature, while the anthologies in Norton's other series seem to provide forums for lesser read texts and literary traditions. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and The Norton Anthology of English Literature are some examples of anthologies in the former series, hereafter referred to as the "A list;" these anthologies are Norton's biggest sellers, and they survey vast literary traditions (Kelly). On the other hand, Norton publishes Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology, English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, and The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, for example, under a different series, hereafter known as the "B list." These anthologies, identified by the "...: A Norton Anthology" structure of their titles, are not only more particularized in their foci, but they usually are smaller in length, include fewer selections, and receive less publicity.

An "A-list" anthology, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature was published in 1997 with prolific publicity geared towards academic circles and the general public. On the other hand, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, on the "B list," was never expected to sell very well (Hellerstein, Personal Interview), and, consequently, hit the shelves quietly and without much publicity. A recent search through Google turned up 307 hits for "Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology," in contrast to 1,390 hits for "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature." The profusion of Internet sites that refer to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature is due, in part, to the copious publicity for the anthology, which led to increased awareness of its existence. …

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