Taking Anthologies Seriously

By Lauter, Paul | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Taking Anthologies Seriously


Lauter, Paul, MELUS


Among Katharine Newman's virtues was that she took anthologies seriously, one of the earliest critics to do so. (1) Anyone who understands how educational institutions really function--like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, they of Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, and with R.W.B. Lewis, American Literature--The Makers and the Making, among many other significant textbooks--knows well how powerful such books are. But the usual academic judgment, one I shared for many years, was that expressed by e.e. cummings' poetic joke at the expense of Louis Untermeyer:

   mr u will not be missed
   who as an anthologist
   sold the many on the few
   not excluding mr u (1 X 1, #XI)

The usual rap against anthologies was that they were superficial, offering a hop, skip, and jump through literary history instead of providing in-depth views of truly great works. There were too many authors, it was said, even in the most limited texts, those included were too uneven in quality, and the multitude of options distracted students from focusing on the true aesthetic value of literary texts. It was, therefore, the argument ran, best to teach whole works of value rather than offering the kind of smorgasbord of brief texts characteristic of even the best anthologies.

What Katharine Newman recognized, and what many of us have come to see, is that this argument was, in practice, a first line of defense against letting most ethnic writers in the classroom door. It was a self-reinforcing argument: that they were not in the standard anthologies argued that they were not valuable; because they were not valued, they were not in the anthologies and thus not taught. Anthologies could, she saw, enable the work of opening the canon and our students' understanding of writing, publishing, and culture more generally. That has indeed been the case, as one can quickly see by comparing tables of contents of American literature anthologies even unto the 1990s with those dominating the market today. In this chapter I want to discuss two aspects of taking anthologies seriously: some of the ways in which they are uniquely useful, and some of the ways in which, like all books and people, they become hard to change.

If in teaching literature one emphasizes primarily literary monuments, the putatively great books of the "great"--that is, canonical writers, context and history, much less biography or analysis of movements and cultural formations, become less significant than internal and intertextual linguistic and aesthetic concerns. But what if one wishes, rather, to help students come to see literature as one form, however special, of textual production in any historical moment? What if one wishes to emphasize the differences and similarities among texts in any particular period? Or to observe the processes of change that help to answer the question "why this thing in this way at this time"? To observe change, to account for difference and similarity, to comprehend the historical conditions of textual production--all, it seems to me, lead us toward the comprehensive anthology, rather than to separate books by individual authors.

To see why, it is useful to turn to my first subject, teaching with anthologies.

I want to emphasize a number of considerations:

* The importance of literary and cultural history, that is, viewing texts and authors in relationship with one another, in time and over time.

* The usefulness of seeing texts within the historical and social contexts in which they were first produced, distributed, and consumed.

* The desirability of examining the conditions of textual production at different moments, including our own.

* The need for widening the lens to include a richer selection of genres.

These are overlapping categories, but I want to try sorting them out because they suggest somewhat differing features of what teaching with anthologies today can provide. …

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