At the recent Modern Language Association Meeting held last December in Chicago, the American Literature Section of the organization sponsored a well-attended program (chaired by James H. Justus of Indiana University) on the subject of "The Canon and American Literature: The Anthology. " At this session, much-debated current issues of theory, pedagogy, and philosophy came up against the practical and logistical concerns of anthology production. Three editors of major, existing two-volume anthologies of American literature presented their opinions and recounted their experiences in creating textbooks that would serve instructors' and students' needs but also set forth a clear, informing vision of what American Literature is.
Hershel Parker of the University of Delaware and an editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Third Edition, in a paper entitled "The Puissance and Pusillanimity of the Anthology Editor," discussed the history of his text, begun back in the mid-70s, and the views of his editorial colleagues. Stating that he is understanding of and sympathetic to many of the new voices currently being proposed for inclusion in texts, he asserted that The Norton Anthology has, since its first edition, continually added and substituted new writers, including works by people of color and women, and would continue to do so in a careful and critically responsible way. He also said that a primary concern of the editorial board was that writers and selections be added to new editions of The Norton Anthology not merely for the sake of representing a number of different political or minority constituencies. Rather, writers were, of necessity, to be judged primarily on their literary merit.
Speaking next, Martha Banta of the University of California at Los Angeles, discussed "Packaging and Principles: The Making of an Anthology," based on her experience in editing The Harper American Literature. Professor Banta spoke of the practical difficulties of preparing a comprehensive anthology. For one thing, the intentions of an editorial board often come into conflict with the publisher's picture of the existing marketplace, and this difference may require the editors to make some compromises in selecting texts. Or changes in staff at a publishing house might result in a changed viewof how to market a particular text or a different degree of commitment to a project.
Further, even when literary works are selected, seeking reprint rights from authors, estates, literary agents, and other publishing houses frequently presents difficulties that may affect the selections. For example, it is almost impossible for an anthology to print more than a single Hemingway story because the rights-holder refuses to allow more material to be used. In other cases, some publishers may have negotiated exclusive rights to major works, thus leaving other publishers to choose from only minor or second-rank work by major authors. Even when a rights-holder may be willing to allow material to be used, the fee for such material may be exorbitant. Since American literature anthologies tend to use much material that is either still in copyright or is best represented by a standard edition (as with the CEAA editions of such authors as Melville, Twain, etc.) that also would require permission, the fees to be paid for reprint rights (and these are typically shared by author and publisher) easily exceed six figures. These costs must be balanced against expected sales of the text, as well as the huge composition and materials costs. Thus, every decision needs to be studied in terms of a selection's representativeness of the author in question and the permissions budget for the text (Professor Banta noted that of the $750,000 required to bring The Harper American Literature to print, $150,000 of this went toward permissions fees, and text authors generally have a substantial share of such fees deducted from earned royalties.)
In discussing "The Making of the Heath Anthology," Paul Lauter of Trinity College described what he thought was the tremendous value of putting together an anthology with the contribution and participation of hundreds of scholars. He stated that the Heath Anthology of American Literature frankly embodies a political vision, one growing out of the civil rights and women's movements, that challenges the authoritative structures of individualism that mark American culture. The thesis of this anthology, therefore, is not that the white male writers studied are unworthy of close reading and careful discussion. Rather, the anthology presents a wide range of "other" voices whose works may have been suppressed, unsupported, or even unpublished, but who have created expressions of particular experiences that do have a place in American culture and which, when studied alongside the writings of the traditional, "classic" figures, provide students with a broader and more real idea of the sweep of American literature.
In addition to providing what he hopes will be a useful, practical, and comprehensive textbook for the American literature survey course, Professor Lauter also feels that the Heath Anthology allows, as no other text does, for the posing of certain central questions of literary study: "What is art?" "Who decides?" and "What functions does art perform, and for and against, whom?"
Responding to the papers, Professor Glen M. Johnson of Catholic University of America offered some statistical data to suggest that the "new" anthologies were not really all that new, and that the amount of space in American literature anthologies that is currently devoted to the "dead white males" of the established canon is pretty much the same as it has been for some time. What has grown, he said, was the actual size of the anthologies, and the added pages were being given over to women and minority writers, but these writers were typically given quite brief space each, while the "major" authors continued to be represented by large numbers of pages and, in some cases, complete novel-length works. Professor Lauter's rejoinder to this assertion was that studying mere numbers of pages was an ahistorical way of looking at these textbooks. Rather, the context in which new writers were added to anthologies and the headnotes or thematic groupings that were created to contextualize these writers represented a major breakthrough. The new writers are not sequestered in the corners of a genuinely "new" anthology but rather have been placed in historical and topical relation to long-honored work of much-studied writers.
(Editor's Note: The size and attention of the audience at this session, the emotion and force with which the papers were delivered, and the publication of two new anthologies of American literature this year, one by Prentice Hall and one by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, assure members of the field of one sure thing: the debate will most certainly continue.)