With the production of several new collections of American women's writing, a timely moment has arrived to appraise the more than 150-year history of such projects and, in particular, to inquire how that history may have informed new work. The revolution in technology, particularly the development of the Internet and Google Books, has, from one perspective, fostered ease in anthologizing: More material is more available to more people more cheaply than ever before. (1) However, the plenitude of texts presents formidable challenges of conceptual understanding and selection for readers and instructors. Although physical research may now seem antiquated, we can only begin to imagine the effort required to compile the first anthologies of American women's writing, yet we should look to these groundbreaking efforts to understand current projects and the work remaining for their successors. What were editors' goals? How did they embody "the pressures [that] immediate political and cultural ideologies ... exerted on the formations and re-formations of the American canon" (Gould 306)? How did they conceive their readerships, a distinction bearing heavily on the production, reception, and, ultimately, reputation and durability of these publications?
My own entry into the anthology business--a deliberate word--was accidental and fortuitous. (2) Working in an "old" English university in the early 1990s, and dissatisfied with the limited availability of texts by American women writers, like so many feminist precursors, I created photocopied course packs. Lunching with my colleague Angela Leighton one day, I learned of her work on Victorian Women Poets; Angela suggested that I write a proposal for an American project and send it to Blackwell. I had no idea what I was in for. A work of love--and expensive, both in time and resources--Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers consumed the greater part of four years, including a summer at Yale's libraries in pre-air-conditioned 100-degree heat. Friends and colleagues, especially senior colleagues, reacted to a snail-mailed questionnaire with astonishing generosity and kindness, inspiring in me courage to read thousands of texts by hundreds of authors. I photocopied only a tiny proportion of what I read, but the unused materials alone fill a four-drawer filing cabinet gathering dust in my mother's barn.
For the most part, anthology editing in the last several decades has been thankless, both financially and professionally unrewarding, especially for editors of American women's and other "outsider" writing, which has required decades of scholarship to comprehend, appreciate, and explain. As Jeffrey R. Di Leo observes, anthologies are still "second-class citizens of the academic world" ("Analyzing" 10), ostensibly fostering superficial textual understandings and eliminating challenging materials. (3) As I have demonstrated in an earlier essay, selection criteria vary widely, with changing emphases on excellence, representativeness/comprehensiveness (which can also signify diversity), and interest--all debatable characteristics (Kilcup, "Poetry" 113). But as Paul Lauter has argued, a focus merely on traditional aesthetics, including genre, militates against ethnic writers ("Taking" 19-20); we could say the same of working-class, multilingual, imprisoned, and otherwise outsidered writers. (4)
Despite their putatively inferior status, anthologies dramatically impact canon formation. (5) Collections of traditionally minoritized or excluded voices, including those of women--ostensibly special interest topics--pressure editors of general anthologies to transform and broaden their offerings, as they have done especially in the last twenty years, when such volumes have become primary texts in university literature survey courses populated by many non-majors. Although specialist anthologies may not appear directly on syllabi, they exert a cumulative effect, as we have seen first with the emergence of the Heath Anthology of American Literature and the substantial, compensatory revisions of the Norton Anthology. …