Heath Anthology in Use Overseas: Poland
Over the past couple of years, we have heard from instructors using the Heath Anthology in a variety of courses in many countries. What follows are some of their comments.In the fall of 1990, I traveled to Poland on a Fulbright to teach American literature and culture at the University of Silesia in Sosnowiec where the Philological Institute is located. I brought with me, courtesy of the United States Information Agency, 15 copies each of the new Heath Anthology of American Literature (volumes One and Two) which had just been published a few months ago. When I arrived at the institute, I discovered many shelves of dusty and well-thumbed volumes of the Norton anthologies (first editions) that had come with my several predecessors, so one thing was certain: if I were to make use of the many new entries in the expanding literary canon-work by native Americans, by the Spanish explorers, African-American slaves, fiction and poetry by American women in the sentimental tradition, work in the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, feminist modernism, and post-modernist/postcolonialist discourse-I would have to make due with a small number of books. Making due with limited resources is something that marks education in eastern Europe, though my students seemed both rigorously prepared for the study of literature and keenly interested.
In my experience teaching from the Heath books I found that students were intensely resistant to theoretical discussions of feminism, for instance, but fascinated by the questions of power and class and race raised by many nineteenth-century women's texts. While the feminist movement is just emerging in Poland, these students are right in the middle of primary questions of power and privilege in the context of the university, as the university struggles to redefine itself. On the one hand, students often said to me in class that they thought that Americans were obsessed with questions of sexuality, gender, and power relations (which often came up in connection with texts in the Heath Anthology.) On some basic level, Affirmative Action, diversity in the workplace, and the movement against sexual harassment seems quite foreign to them. On the other hand, however, despite the profound homogeneity of Polish society, I constantly encountered these issues to be basic to Polish consciousness, even if they would not name them as such: students on a number of occasions articulated profoundly racist and explicitly violent remarks about gypsies; students discussed freely the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the institution and the gender-based inequalities that faced them when they would leave to find employment; students were well aware of the way canons are formed in gender-inflected hierarchies because they had seen firsthand how contemporary Polish women poets, for instance, had been marginalized by academic institutions. And homosexuality, all but invisible under the previous regime, is now beginning to come out of the closet in the eastern countries as gay organization spring up and the AIDS crisis focusses public attention. The Heath Anthology, in other words, provided some measure of access to literary texts and ideas that are part of these struggles in the United States context, and gave us material for learning about how our culture negotiates these historical realities, within the literature itself, within the way literature is disseminated, and within the way literature is talked about by academics and other readers. In some ways these students are better prepared for the lessons a Heath Anthology affords, lessons about placing Hawthorne in the context of Stowe, Pound in the context of Hughes, Henry James or Edith Wharton in the contexts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sarah Orne Jewett, or Kate Chopin, Douglas in the context of Jacobs, Puritan mythology in the context of Native American mythology. It seems to many of my North American students mysterious as to why anyone would want to question the place that Hawthorne has in the canon, and amorphous how that canon got made in the first place. Polish students, with the exception of Jerzy Kosinski, however, know something about what it means: Kosinski is only recently being translated and published in Polish. American readers can take a novel like The Painted Bird for granted as a part of our own reading experience, even though it concerns a country and a time far distant; Polish readers cannot. However, if Polish students are sensitive in some degree to the way the state ideological apparatus shaped what could and could not be read, they are still struggling to find the ways in which other institutions, like the Church, have such an impact. For Kosinski's antipathy to communism is not the only thing that kept him from entering the Polish literary imagination for so long.
The Church is extremely powerful in Polish society at the moment, and one anecdote should serve to indicate the impact it is having. In the fall of 1990, the American conductor of the Krakow Symphony Orchestra, Gilbert Levine, organized a concert in an old synagogue in the Kazimierz district of Krakow, which was to have the symbolic meaning of reconciliation between the Polish Catholics and Polish Jews. It was to be a big media event, and even the Pope knew about it and expressed his enthusiasm. His interest notwithstanding, none of the Polish bishops who had received invitations attended, and the snub was felt to be quite significant. Many of my students expressed dismay at these pressures introduced by a Church which faces an oddly homogeneous society, with perhaps only 10,000 Jews in a country of more than 20 million people. The North American context, therefore, is quite bewildering to them with its extraordinarily diverse literary culture. But there is a kind of parallel that we were able to explore. We could examine earlier anthologies' representation, for instance, of nineteenth-century literature with its concentration of New England male writers-and contrast that with the story Paul Lauter's anthology tells, with its complement of women writing in the sentimental tradition, slave narratives, folk tales and the like. This different narrative of American literature is certainly not more true than the first, but appears to reflect the new needs our generation feels. Discussing the formation of canons as a function of felt social needs enabled us to comment, for example, on the formation of exclusionary politics vis-a-vis anti-semitism, sexism, and the contemporary pogroms against the gypsies in Poland.