The Heath Anthology of American Literature has fostered a lively dialogue within the profession about the American literature canon. An article in the January 16, 1991, Chronicle of Higher Education helps its readers listen in on the discussion by interviewing instructors and getting their reactions to the Heath Anthology.
Among those who praise the Heath Anthology, John Getz, chair of the English Department at Xavier University, told The Chronicle, "The book so dramatizes for students that the canon is contested that they become empowered as critics."
Cathy N. Davidson, a professor of literature at Duke University and editor of the journal American Literature, told The Chronicle, "Typically, anthologies are not considered scholarship. But, the Heath anthology consolidated 20 years of scholarship on multiculturalism and different ways of reading literary texts."
Not surprisingly, editors of American literature texts from other publishers take a less enthusiastic view of Heath's work.
Emory Elliot, an editor of Prentice-Hall's anthology and a professor of English at the University of California-Riverside, said to The Chronicle, "Those who want the most expanded canon will use Heath" but called his anthology a "teachable" alternate choice.
The Chronicle reported that Nina Baym, an editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature and a professor of English at the University of Illinois, said, "I don't think they [the Heath editors] are as radical as they claim to be." She explained that the Norton Anthology and others are also becoming more inclusive.
Other scholarly voices have also critiqued the Heath Anthology. Peter Shaw, a professor of English at St. Peter's College in New Jersey, told The Chronicle that publication of the Heath Anthology is a sign that those who want to make the literary canon a political issue "have won the battle."
Perhaps the strongest criticism of the Heath Anthology came from The New Criterion, which gave it the sobriquet "The Heath Travesty of American Literature." In an editorial, that journal questioned "whether every scrap of writing, no matter how vulgar, deserves to be hailed . . . so long as it happened to have been produced by an approved victim group."
Heath Anthology general editor Paul Lauter, a professor of English at Trinity College in Connecticut, told The Chronicle that political decisions are part of any effort to establish a canon. He added, "Aesthetic criteria are deeply affected by the way in which we are placed in the world. That is politics. That's not to say politics equals aesthetics. But no set of aesthetic criteria is transcendent of political concerns."
Lauter and his editorial colleagues may be among the first to acknowledge and turn to productive use the politics of canon construction. Undeniably, their work in the Heath Anthology of American Literature has brought new voices into the ongoing dialogue about the canon.