Across nine editions and fifty turbulent years of literary studies, The Norton Anthology of English Literature has maintained a consistent if mildly contradictory philosophy of annotation. On the one hand, writes founding editor M.H. Abrams, editorial interventions should be informative rather than interpretive and provide the "least impediment to the normal flow of reading" (Abrams 1st xxv). (1) Headnotes and footnotes aim to be "as simple and lucid as possible" (3rd xxxi), with editors making "a special effort to minimize commentary that is interpretive rather than, in a very limited sense, explanatory" (5th xxxvi). Stephen Greenblatt's preface to the 2006 edition, the first in which he fully replaced Abrams as general editor, reiterates Abrams's preference for notes that deliver plain information: "Period introductions, headnotes, and annotation are designed to enhance students' reading and, without imposing an interpretation, to give students the information they need to understand each text" (8th xxii). And in the newly published ninth edition, Greenblatt sharpens his remark about "imposing an interpretation": the anthology "is not a place for the display of pedantry, the pushing of cherished theories, or the promotion of a narrow ideological agenda" (xiii). However much social conservatives have complained about an ideologically tilted English classroom, Norton separates itself from the fuss of culture wars by defining its core annotative purpose as explanatory rather than interpretive.
On the other hand, both Abrams and Greenblatt recognize that they cannot rule out interpretive notes altogether. One reason is practical and pedagogical. With so many texts loaded inside Norton, professors will have time to discuss only a small fraction of them during class hours, when the important work of interpretation will be carried out. Abrams therefore negotiates a compromise that will allow interpretive notes in certain cases to give students help with difficult texts not addressed during class discussions. "In selected instances," he writes in the preface to the third edition,
editorial headnotes or footnotes briefly indicate possible interpretations of a difficult work or passage. The reason for this procedure is a practical one. The anthology includes some of the most complex and problematic writings in the language, and the normal procedure in teaching the course is to assign a number of texts which there is no time to discuss adequately. (3rd xxxi)
Although Abrams wants the anthology only minimally dressed with such acts of editorial interpretation--"Our endeavor is to provide a necessary modicum of guidance to the student, but in a fashion that simply opens out possibilities for his independent judgment"--his self-sufficient, stand-alone book must include some material that steers students toward "the best that has been thought and said about literature" (1st xxvi).
Later editions will drop the Matthew Arnold echo, which sounded a little old-fashioned even back in 1962. Both Abrams and Greenblatt recognize that there are theoretical as well as practical complications surrounding the selection of "the best" in literary interpretation. From the beginning Abrams distinguished between scholarship and criticism; in scholarship, notably the realm of textual archaeology, quality and progress are more easily judged than in interpretive criticism. In one preface, for example, Abrams comments, "The changes in this edition are in line with recent scholarly discoveries and important shifts in critical interests" (3rd xxvii). Scholarship yields "discoveries," but criticism rests on the less scientific foundation of "shifting interests." Greenblatt in his prefaces pays tribute to Abrams's methods and preserves his terminology: both presiding editors understand "that new scholarly discoveries and the shifting interests of readers constantly alter the landscape of literary history" (9th xiv).
To date, most discussions surrounding Norton's engagement with shifting interests have focused on questions of canon. …