Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Center Cannot Hold: The Development of World Literature Anthologies

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Center Cannot Hold: The Development of World Literature Anthologies

Article excerpt

This article examines the role of the world literature anthology in providing an accessible and contained canon of African literature. It can be classified as a review article of the Third edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, the first major world literature anthology not to feature Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. With the lack of a central African text, the inclusion of texts by younger and more far-flung writers provides a new way to look at African literature as a countercanon. An unexpected consequence of this omission is a decentering and a widening of the scope of what students may define as "African" literature.

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When Chinua Achebe died on March 22, 2013, obituary notices and commemorations widely referred to him in parental terms as "the founding father of modern African literature" (Telegraph) and the author who "gave literary birth to modern Africa" (New York Times). There is a certain irony in citing as founder of literary Africa the author whose most noted achievement was to create a vision of Igbo society as already mature, with generations of ancestors having a fully formed social and cultural existence prior to the imposition of European values. Further irony lies in the conflation of his local first novel, set in one of "the nine villages of Umuofia," with literary Africa writ large. But the status of Things Fall Apart in what global literature theorist David Damrosch calls the "counter-canon" is secure. For Damrosch, the hyper-canon is reserved for the older "major" authors, while the counter-canon "is composed of the subaltern and 'contestatory' voices of writers in ... minor languages within great-power languages" (45). Things Fall Apart may even be best described as hyper-canonical within the counter-canon.

While the historical primacy of Achebe is contestable even outside of oral literature (Feopold Senghor and others were writing in the journal L'etudiant noir in the 1930s, for instance), Things Fall Apart is likely to be the first adult African literature typically read by an American student. (1) The novel has become a staple of courses in high schools that value a global vision of literature. Its central importance to world literature courses is also evident in its unexpurgated inclusion, until very recently, in all three major anthologies used in American classrooms. In The Bedford Anthology of World Literature (2003), The Longman Anthology of World Literature (2004), and the first and second editions of The Norton Anthology of World Literature (1999; 2002), Things Fall Apart is the lengthiest selection in each volume on twentieth-century and contemporary literature. (2) In fact, the arrangement of the other texts in these anthologies, as well as texts by or about Achebe, attests to an even more dynamic role for Things Fall Apart as a central text around which other texts revolve.

With the book market indicating good sales of the established anthology, one naturally comes to expect newer editions to be printed; so it was not surprising that W.W. Norton & Co. published a new edition of the Anthology of World Literature: Third edition (2012). This edition would prove to be something more than a minor tweaking meant solely to sell another volume; the wholesale changing of the editorial board indicates a new vision for this text. For the previous incarnations, Sarah Lawall presided as General Editor over a team of some sixteen section editors, each identified with the area over which s/he presided. In the third edition, the General Editorship is taken over by Martin Puchner, with seven primary editors listed on the cover page. There is also a reformatting and rewriting of the headnotes and other supplementary texts. Even though many of the selections of literature from the second edition remained intact, there is a more radical substitution of texts than is usually the case when a publisher offers a new edition. Two of the most noticeable trends in this edition's new directions are: (1) the expansion of global voices to include, from the East, authors hailing from countries other than superpowers China or Japan. …

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