The Heath Anthology in the News
The Heath Anthology of American Literature has received a great deal of attention in the press since it was published. The following excerpts are from places where the book has been reviewed, featured, or mentioned in the context of another related topic.
The anthology was the subject of a Los Angeles Times front page "Column One" article on August 27, 1990. Next to a headline that read "52 Americans Leave Iraq" were the words, "Anthology Rattles Tradition: New Heath collection broadens the scope of American literature with works by women and minorities. Opponents call it an affirmative-action approach." The writer was Higher Education reporter Larry Gordon, who has been covering the controversy over the freshman reading list at Stanford.
When UCLA English Prof. William D. Schaefer first saw some of the authors included in the new Heath Anthology of American Literature, he thought: "Who the hell are they?"
If Schaefer, former executive director of the national literary organization known as Modern Language Association, had that reaction, most other scholars and students surely did too.
That's just fine with the editors of the mammoth and controversial anthology. Their goal was to rattle traditions and to show that there are more master writers in American literature than, as several professors jokingly put it, "15 dead white men and Emily Dickinson." As a result, the anthology has heated up a long-simmering debate central to the teaching profession: What should students read?...
...By their very aim to contain the best and most important writings, anthologies confer enormous authority and prestige on authors. For a poem or story to be included in a popular anthology for the first time means moving from the margin to the mainstream. Inclusion tells readers, in effect: This is a classic.
What's more, such survey books usually are used in required college freshman and sophomore courses. Some of those students will never take an English course again and others will start lifelong enthusiasms based on something in an anthology. That's why professors and critics argue so much about what should be in the books...
...Proponents of the Stanford change and the Heath anthology stress that the multiethnic nature of American campuses, especially in California, require teaching students about more than ancient Athens, Elizabethan London and 19th-Century Boston. Besides, they say, arguments over what is a masterpiece have been going on for generations; Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, died in obscurity in 1891, and his works were not rediscovered until the mid-1920s.
Peter Shaw, vice president of the National Assn. of Scholars, a Princeton-based group of conservative academics, said his group opposes what he called "the affirmative action link" of the Heath work. Additions of what he considers minor writers because they represent women or ethnic groups "are not judgments of literature on merit, but for political reasons and are part of a larger politicization of both curricula and college teaching that we were formed to oppose," said Shaw...
...College freshmen often express surprise that so many women and minority writers existed, professors say, mainly because high school readings are so traditional...[General Editor Paul] Lauter said that if conservative critics would "get away from their ideological preconceptions and just read the texts," they would be persuaded that the Heath selections are worthy.
He predicted that any efforts to halt expansion of what most people think of as American literature would meet the same fate as racial segregation in Southern schools. "The schools in Alabama were integrated," Lauter said, "just as the curriculum will change too."
In the July 2, 1990 issue of The Nation, Lillian S. Robinson, Visiting Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, reviewed the Heath Anthology in an article titled, "I, Too, Am America."
That all those voices are there and we never even knew it is the major revelation of the Heath Anthology. Not that the collection's bulk will suffice to answer those who resist challenges to the traditional literary curriculum by questioning whether there is any other material worth including. (Doesn't changing standards necessarily entail lowering them?) But the scale of the endeavor and the inclusion of so many black, Chicano, Native American and Asian-American authors of both sexes serve at least to demonstrate that, however effective the silencing of minority voices may have been, it was very far from total...
...The Heath Anthology does not ignore the authors, both major and minor, whom we expect to find in any survey of American literature. The 220 pages devoted to Hawthorne, for example, and the 184 to Melville include precisely the pieces by those writers that I was assigned in high school ("The Minister's Black Veil," part of The Scarlet Letter, "Bartleby the Scrivener") or in college ("My Kinsman, Major Molineaux," Billy Budd), as well as less familiar selections that show something of each man's mind at work. But the rest of the section in which Hawthorne and Melville appear, titled "The Flowering of Narrative," is made up of works by Caroline Kirkland, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wells Brown, Alice Cary, Elizabeth Stoddard and Harriet E. Wilson, material that was ignored, deprecated or unknown at the time I was required to take a year of American lit...
...Most readers of The Nation are not in the market for an American literature anthology, progressive or reactionary. The reasons for anyone else to take an interest in this one are essentially civic. It would matter to all of us what versions of American culture are made available to those who will be consuming and also producing that culture in the chapter that could be called "New Voices: 1991 to the Present."...
In the June 13, 1990 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, critic Donald Lazere from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, responded to claims that the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe discredited the work of American Marxist scholars. The author argues that the goals of academic Marxism have long been misrepresented.
Marxist literary critics raise the possibility that interpretations and reputations of authors past and present are colored to some extent by biases of class, race, sex, nationalism, and historical moment....This project of canon revision has been misperceived as throwing out the classics and abandoning literary quality--as though it were inconceivable that works by members of previously disenfranchised groups might have any literary quality. (The new Heath Anthology of American Literature presents a judicious integration of writers from these groups with established classics.)
The Heath Anthology has not been favorably received everywhere. The October 1990 issue of The New Criterion included an editorial that was entitled, "The Heath travesty of American literature."
The latest example of what the politics of ethnic and sexual redress has done to the academy comes to us in two elephantine volumes from the D. C. Heath publishing company. Totalling nearly fifty-five hundred pages, The Heath Anthology of American Literature is a monument to the intellectual bankruptcy of the multicultural imperatives it champions. It is a systematic attempt to subject the study of American literature and culture to the strictures of affirmative-action thinking. For the editors of the Heath Anthology, questions of quality and of literary excellence-when they arise at all-take a distant back seat to the diversity quotient. If there are Zunis out there, some of them must have written something-or at least said something that someone else wrote down-and by God samples of those utterances must be dug up and placed alongside the works of Hawthorne and Melville, Wharton and James as exemplary products of American literature. . . .