When I was in college, “The Norton Anthology of English Literature” ended with Dylan Thomas. Bringing up the rear in this long parade of writers was not a position likely to win the Welsh poet new readers. With so many older figures to cover, my English professor never even got to Thomas. The most recent poet we read was T.S. Eliot. After that, we were on our own.
With the eighth edition of the “Norton Anthology,” published this month, the parade has taken on a very different configuration. Thomas now has more than 30 younger writers straggling after him, with last place occupied by the poet Carol Ann Duffy, who was born in 1955, two years after Thomas’ death.
The tail of the procession has not only lengthened; it has also grown more varied. Interspersed with Anglo-Saxon or Celtic names like Larkin, Gunn, Pinter, and Heaney, one sees names that clearly imply origins beyond the British Isles – Naipaul, Achebe, Rushdie, and Soyinka.
Nor is it just the end of the parade that has changed. The Romantic period no longer begins with William Blake, but with Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Robinson. Among the Restoration and 18th century writers, one finds Mary Astell, Anne Finch, and Eliza Haywood. Marching with the great poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, Aemilia Lanyer, Mary Wroth, and Elizabeth Cary stride with confident step, while a sisterhood of royal females emerges from the anthology’s historical notes, bringing letters, speeches, and verses to the gathering.
“The 20th century is of course where you’d expect most of the changes to be, because significant writers keep coming, but already in the seventh edition and continuing into the eighth, a different conception of the shape of the canon has been emerging,” said Stephen Greenblatt, the Cogan University Professor of the Humanities and general editor of “The Norton Anthology of English Literature.”
Greenblatt, a world-renowned Shakespeare scholar, is only the second general editor in the “Norton’s” 43-year history. He succeeds M.H. Abrams, who has overseen every edition from the first in 1962 through the seventh in 2000. An authority on the Romantic period, Abrams, 93, now has the title of founding editor emeritus, while Greenblatt, who served as associate general editor for the seventh edition, assumes the No. 1 spot.
In undertaking the editorship of the world’s most widely used anthology of English literature, Greenblatt is aware that he is assuming an awesome responsibility, although he strives to carry the burden lightly.
“Yes, I feel a great sense of responsibility, but I try to make sure it’s laced with modesty. After all, I’m not operating as a grand inquisitor. There are many voices in the shaping of the volume. I’m not the sole responsible agent.”
In fact, there are many editors involved in the creation of the 6,000-page anthology, all of them distinguished scholars in their own right. Beside Greenblatt, the list includes two other Harvard English professors: Milton scholar Barbara Lewalski, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History and Literature and of English Literature; and medievalist James Simpson, professor of English and American literature and language.
The editors have direct responsibility for the various historical periods into which English literature is conventionally divided – the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Restoration and early 18th century, Romantic period, Victorian age, and the 20th century and after. As well as being general editor, Greenblatt is co-editor of the Renaissance period.
In addition to the qualifications of its editorial staff, another factor contributing to the continuing popularity of the anthology is the scope and thoroughness of its polling practices. The anthology’s editors regularly send out questionnaires to hundreds of professors asking what they like or don’t like about the publication. The editors also commission detailed reports from academics who combine impeccable scholarly credentials with extensive teaching experience.
The fate of certain authors or literary works may hinge on what the anthology’s users have to say: Should a particular Shakespeare sonnet be left in or taken out? Which anonymous medieval lyrics best convey a sense of the period? Which of Ted Hughes’ many poems best represent this important 20th century writer?
The editors also receive many unsolicited questions and comments.
“For example, people write and ask why don’t we include more Swinburne? Well, we have to ask ourselves, why don’t we? The obvious answer is that people aren’t that interested in teaching Swinburne. But maybe we should include more of his work and sort of nudge people into teaching him. It’s a complicated give and take.”
Another process of give and take occurs over the issue of space limitations. Even with the ultrathin paper the anthology is printed on, there is a limit to the number of literary works, footnotes, and critical essays that can be crammed into the two fat volumes (or, if you prefer a more portable format, six smaller period volumes). In other words, if something is added, something else must go.
“As Abrams said in the introduction to the first edition, the literary tradition is always on the move, it’s constantly changing. That doesn’t mean that the old gets chucked out, but the canon has to be reshaped.”
Feminist criticism has been a powerful force in reshaping the canon by illuminating hitherto neglected female authors and making a case for their inclusion on historical as well as aesthetic grounds. A case in point is Elizabeth Cary (1585? – 1639), whose play, “Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry,” is the first published play in English written by a woman (1613). Excerpts of the play first appeared in the seventh edition of the anthology.
The eighth edition augments the already considerable quantity of verse and prose by 16th and early 17th century women with a new section called “Women in Power,” which includes writings by Mary Tudor, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I.
“One could ask, are the letters of Queen Elizabeth worth putting in the anthology, when, alternatively, you could add more Shakespeare sonnets to the 42 already included? But I think that’s the wrong question,” said Greenblatt. “My own values are deeply aesthetic. I love this literature, and I don’t want to sacrifice beauty for something that is only historically interesting. But I do think it’s important to include texts that are highly significant to understanding the literature of the period.”
What’s more, this is the age of the Internet. The “Norton Anthology” maintains an extensive Web site, which includes, in addition to essays and source materials, every piece of literature that has been eliminated from earlier print editions. So really nothing is lost; it just goes online.
Faced with an editorial task that demands a constant succession of hard choices, Greenblatt seems to take reassurance from the presence of the infinitely expandable online resource.
“Beyond all this bean counting and playing with page counts is a sense of the overwhelmingly rich archive of creativity in this language. I don’t really want to leave out anything that’s important.”