Keepers of the Code: English-Canadian Literary Anthologies and the Representation of Nation

By Howells, Coral Ann | British Journal of Canadian Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Keepers of the Code: English-Canadian Literary Anthologies and the Representation of Nation


Howells, Coral Ann, British Journal of Canadian Studies


Robert Lecker, Keepers of the Code: English-Canadian Literary Anthologies and the Representation of Nation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 400 pp. Cased. $80. ISBN 978-1-4426-4571-4. Paper. $34.95. ISBN 978-1-4426-1396-6.

Literary anthologies, like literary histories, are generally considered key agents in narratives of nationhood, establishing a country's cultural identity, constructing (and revising) its literary canon, with their editors assuming an authoritative role as 'keepers of the code'. How surprising then to find on page 8 this statement by Robert Lecker, whose expertise as literary critic, anthologist, editor and publisher is internationally acknowledged:

There can be no such thing as the accurate representation of the nation through a national literature anthology. Paradoxically, national literature anthologies underline the fact that nations are plural and unstable, unmappable in any form ... National literature anthologies are naturally conflicted and in doubt. So they should be; nations are naturally conflicted and in doubt.

In his impressive historical study of such anthologies since their mid-nineteenth-century origins to the present (2010), Lecker adopts a very twenty-first-century reading of the relation between anthologies and shifting discourses of the nation, emphasising context of production and 'the anxieties that haunt them' (p. 8). At the same time he argues that anthologies continue to function more traditionally as forms of national witness: 'This editorial act of witnessing lies at the heart of all the anthologies I have examined ... as if the impulse to affirm the nation is genetically encoded, part of the Canadian anthologist's DNA' (p. 340). Conflicts of faith and doubt pervade this narrative of code-making, code-breaking and code-keeping.

The volume is chronologically arranged in seven chapters which set out the direction of the overall argument: 'Nineteenth-Century Anthologies and the Making of Canadian Literature'; 'Representations of the Nation, 1900-1922'; 'Anthologies between the Wars'; 'From The Book of Canadian Poetry (A. …

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