Using the Heath Anthology, Part I: Report from Chile

by Professor Barry Gross,
Michigan State University

Before leaving for Chile on a Fulbright, Professor Barry Gross called us at D. C. Heath to say that he would be lecturing from the Heath Anthology of American Literature. What follows is Professor Gross' report of his experiences this past summer.

For my one-month Fulbright in Chile this summer, the Department of Literature at Pontificia Universidad Catolica organized three different activities: a two-day American Studies Seminar, a course for teachers of literature, and lectures to undergraduates.

It occurred to me that the canon might serve as the theme for the American Studies Seminar. I told them it was the hottest issue in American Studies today and that a good starting point might be the new two-volume Heath Anthology of American Literature.

My hosts informed me that the American Studies Seminar was an annual event through the early eighties and that this was an attempt to revive it; I should plan to lecture, they said, for the two three-hour sessions. They thought the issue of canon formation would be very interesting and would help them update their knowledge of recent American issues and texts (the U. S. had punished the Pinochet government by substantially reducing the number of Fulbrights in recent years; I was the first Fulbright in American Studies in a while.)

For the course for teachers, they chose African-American literature as a topic because they had never been exposed to it in a systematic way; and they asked me to send a bibliography so they could prepare the readings before the course started. I called D. C. Heath to order enough copies of the two-volume anthology for the participants and also for all the members of the African-American course.

I decided not to teach from the Heath Anthology for the American Studies Seminar--that is, not to assign readings--but to use it to illustrate the debate about the canon, to talk about how and why the Heath Anthology came into being and the criteria and processes used to select authors and texts and to point out the additions of minority and women writers to the canon and to raise the questions of what should get read and taught, who does and/or should decide, and what is the effect of the additions on the old canon. I was sure I would have no trouble filling up two three-hour sessions.

For the African-American class, I constructed the following syllabus from the Heath Anthology:

1st class: overview and introduction; no assignments

2nd class: 1760-1865/Slavery: Hammon, Hall, Equiano, Wheatley, Douglass, Jacobs, Walker, Garnet, Truth, Wilson, Brown (189 pages)

3rd class: 1865-1920/Reconstruction and After: Folktales, Chesnutt, Dunbar, DuBois, Washington (78 pages)

4th class: 1920-1930/Harlem Renaissance: Locke, Toomer, Hughes, Cullen, Bennett, Bontemps, Brown, Hurston, Johnson, McKay, Spencer, Larsen, Blues Lyrics, Schuyler (113 pages)

5th class: 1930-1968/MidCentury: Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hansberry, Brooks, Hayden, Marshall, King (132 pages)

6th class: 1968-1990/After King: Morrison, Gaines, Walker, Evans, Knight, Baraka, Lorde, Reed, Harper (70 pages)

The American Studies Seminar was attended by twenty-two people, including teachers from Universidad Metropolitana de la Educacion, Universidad de Talca, Universidad del Bio-Bio, Universidad de Concepcion, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Instituto Professional Chileno Britanico, Instituto Blas Canas, Colegio Santiago, Colegio San Benito, and Universidad de San Juan in Argentina. I didn't have to lecture the second day because the Heath Anthology stimulated and elicited so many theoretical and practical questions, comments, and concerns. We spent three hours flipping pages as people referred to and commented on particular writers, texts, movements, and examples.

The African-American course was attended by eighteen people, including teachers from Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Colegio Nido de Aguilas, Colegio San Gabriel, Colegio Santiago, one writer, one lawyer, and two translators. My fear that I might be doing more harm that good by forcing African-American literature into six two-hour sessions was alleviated by the Heath Anthology whose selections are so abundant and varied that as soon as anyone proposed a questionable generalization or dangerous simplification or glib assessment, I could immediately direct their attention to this writer, to that poem, to yet another example. I wasn't able to explore African-American literature with them in all its variety and complexity but I was able, in six two-hour sessions, to suggest the variety and complexity of African-American literature and whet their minds and appetitites for further study.

But the Heath Anthology proved to be most useful in ways I hadn't foreseen.

After a long article about the African-American course appeared in the Sunday Book Review supplement of El Mercurio, Santiago's--and Chile's--chief newspaper, the director of the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano de Cultura asked me to speak to the general public on African-American literature. I didn't think a formal lecture would be appropriate--he couldn't tell me how many people would show up or what, if anything, anyone would have read in African-American literature--so I decided to do a reading of African-American poetry. I drew from the Heath Anthology enough fine, readable, and representative poems about what it means to be African-American to fill an hour, arranged them chronologically, and drew liberally from the excellent biographical sketches and period introductions to provide a running and informative commentary on the poets, the genre, and issues in African-American culture. Thirty people showed up, among them a teacher at Chile's premiere prep school who asked where these poems were available. I gratefully brandished the Heath Anthology and saw to it that he and his colleagues got complimentary copies.

The Heath Anthology stimulated so much interest at Pontificia Universidad Catolica that in addition to the three lectures I was scheduled to deliver on African-American, Jewish-American, and women writers--and for which I drew from and liberally used the Heath Anthology--I was asked to lecture in classes on the short story, drama, poetry, and modernism. I had only the Heath Anthology with me, but it was sufficient. For the thirty-seven students in the short story course I had copies made of "Box Seat" by Jean Toomer and spent an exciting hour reading the story with them. For the forty students in the drama course I had copies made of Waiting for Lefty and we had a fine time acting it out over two class periods. For the thirty-seven students in the poetry course I had copies made of Sylvia Plath's poems which we read aloud and parsed. For the thirty-seven students in the modernism course I put together a sampler of works by Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams, Stevens, Stein, and Dos Passos and asked the students to attempt a description of modernism.

Not only did the Heath Anthology make it possible for me to create my own anthologies on the spot and on demand, but it also proved to be an invaluable source and resource of useful and life-saving--secondary material, a kind of informal encyclopedia-cum-dictionary of American cultural history and biography.

Contents, No. IV