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Daniel E. Ritchie

Speaking Power to Truth

The Norton Anthology of English Lit.

When I began my career as an English professor, I heard about a teacher elsewhere who handed each new edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature to his teaching assistant. She dutifully copied his marginal notes from the old edition to the new. What laziness, I thought. Well, that was five or six editions ago. And when my 9th edition arrived a year ago in April ("with his showres soote," as many Norton readers will recall), I gave it to my TA. She returned it after 11 hours of copying.

The NAEL, more commonly "the Norton," is easily the industry leader. The first edition of the anthology appeared in 1962 under the editorship of the Romantic scholar M. H. Abrams and quickly displaced its rivals. Its two-volume format was suitable for the common, two-semester survey of English literature. It distinguished itself from other anthologies by adding prose and drama to the more typical poetry selections. It was both lighter and smaller than its competitors and yet, because it used Bible paper, much longer. There were initially 1,759 pages, now swollen to over 3,000 in the volume I use—the one that goes from Beowulf to William Cowper (d. 1800), the poet and hymnodist whose hymns have never actually made the anthology. Although exact sales figures are hard to come by, Norton claims that eight million students have read its English literature anthology—although "handled" may more accurately describe the contact I've sometimes observed.

Thirty years ago, when I was in graduate school, disputes over the "canon" of English literature were at their height. Like many students in the '60s and '70s, I was taught by professors whose approach to literature was influenced by Harvard's General Education in a Free Society (1945), the famous curriculum known as "The Red Book": "we envisage general education as an organic whole whose parts join in expounding a ruling idea and in serving a common aim …. In this view, there are truths which none can be free to ignore … truths concerning the structure of the good life and concerning the factual conditions by which it may be achieved, truths comprising the goals of a free society." But those were about to be replaced. To take one illustration, drawn almost at random, consider the title of this 1988 article from a professor at the University of Wisconsin: "Gender and the (Re)Formation of the Canon: Is Politics All?" Her answer, predictably, is yes, politics is all—until the emergence of "a new paradigm of literary history that incorporates a feminine aesthetics and functions on a feminist theory of value."[1]

In the ensuing decades, literary studies have embraced one form of power after another. It's not surprising that professors would want their anthology to reflect that trend. And when that happened in 1998, with the appearance of a rival, the Longman Anthology of British Literature, the editors at Norton were alarmed. The Longman had "created a new paradigm for anthologies," according to its publisher. Under the Norton's next general editor, the new historicist Stephen Greenblatt, the venerable anthology followed along, beginning with the 7th edition in 2000. Like the Longman, it now included "The Wife's Lament," Aphra Behn's Oronooko, Frankenstein, and works by Marie de France, William Hogarth, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie, among other overlapping materials.

One of the general editors of the Longman anthology, Kevin Dettmar, refers to the older way of anthology-making as the "bleeding hunks of meat" method: slicing a work from its context and "slapping it down" on the table of contents.[2] It took for granted Matthew Arnold's definition of culture: "the best that has been thought and said in the world." The new approach is "to convey the multiple contexts that ground every great literary work." Who could quarrel with that? Beginning with the 1989 Heath Anthology of American Literature, Dettmar continues, anthologies now ask "best for what? Best for whom?" In practice, this cui bono? approach almost always presumes that the answer is one of power. Many of the Norton's "thematic clusters"—shorter selections grouped around a theme—reflect this presumption: Women in Power; Low People and High People; Empire and National Identity.

To profit from many of the selections included under the new dispensation, it's not necessary to share the editors' ideological assumptions about power. I think all scholars are glad to see the Countess of Pembroke's influential translation of the Psalms and the fine letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (added to the 7th and 9th editions, respectively). By the same token, you don't have to buy Edward Said's postcolonial theories in Orientalism to welcome the selections that illustrate the literary portrayal of Islam.

When editors are questioned about what stays and what goes, of course, they eschew the frank appeal to power. The other general editor of the Longman, David Damrosch, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The biggest factor is what we find people are using in the classroom. The changes typically are less ideological than reflecting what people in the field want to use."[3] Changes in the Norton are said to have the same pattern. In the same Chronicle article, the editorial director of Norton's college division said, "We look to see what pieces are not much taught and figure out what could come out with causing too much pain." Norton editor Stephen Greenblatt offered this example: the Anglo-Saxon Battle of Maldon wasn't getting used much, so it gave way to a medieval version of the apocryphal book of Judith. She's a powerful female warrior, which makes a "handy counterpoint," the article concludes, "to the ever-popular Beowulf."

Feel better? But wait a minute. Is it possible that professors felt they needed a female counterpoint to Beowulf for ideological reasons? And why did they stop teaching The Battle of Maldon in the first place? It's a poem about an English defeat at the hands of the Danish invaders. It ends with a doomed retainer saying: "Our hearts must be the stronger, our purpose firmer, our spirit higher as our might lessens." The poem is about how to die with honor. A poem that talks about how to lose could raise questions in courses that place literature in a context of power. No wonder it isn't popular these days.

And how about Chaucer's Franklin's Tale, which was included for an edition or two, then dropped in the 7th? That tale ends by reconciling a marital conflict through generous behavior on all sides. It gets the Canterbury pilgrims beyond the power struggles of the Wife of Bath's Prologue. The Franklin's Tale asks them—and the reader—"Which character was the most generous?" Since the Canterbury Tales carry on an internal conversation about many issues, including marriage, wouldn't the Franklin provide a handy counterpoint to the Wife's point of view? Not if you want to portray the literature about marriage as encoding a power struggle.

As long as I'm on this subject, the last few editions of the Norton have excluded Swift's poems that praise the wit of his beloved "Stella." They now include a selection from Defoe's Roxana (1724) in which the heroine makes love to a Dutch merchant, refuses to marry him, and offers this critique: "[T]he very nature of the marriage contract was, in short, nothing but giving up liberty, estate, authority, and everything to the man, and the woman was indeed a mere woman ever after—that is to say, a slave." As the footnote reads, this "expresses her liberated views of marriage," so it must be a good thing.

Really? Since the first edition of the Norton, we have liberated an additional 30 percent of our newborns from coming into the world with married parents. Is the Norton's approach to literature "the best that has been thought and said" for them? This is not just a debating point. These editorial choices will please the professors who teach gender relations from the perspective of power. Roxana asserts power over her own body, while Stella and the Franklin disappear. But do these choices highlight the most important truths about sexuality? Samuel Johnson saw the purpose of literature in very different terms. "Poets, indeed, profess fiction; but the legitimate end of fiction is the conveyance of truth." Putting an aesthetic of power at the center of literary and editorial practice inevitably blinds us to half of the literature's truths and most of its pleasures. There must be a better way.

I'll come back to pleasure and truth in a moment. But to anticipate a couple of objections: why not just skip Roxana, add The Battle of Maldon, and summarize The Franklin's Tale in lecture? And if you're still upset, forget about an anthology altogether, since about 90 percent of the Norton is available for free online. Here's what makes this anthology indispensable to my teaching: its organization and critical apparatus, to say nothing of its extraordinary customer service. A literature teacher needs an introductory volume that guides students in sensible paths through a vast subject; introduces them to unfamiliar writers in fair, reasonable ways; and answers their questions about difficult words and passages without prejudice to the students' own best thoughts. For the most part, the Norton still does that. Its adherence to recent ideological strains of criticism makes it increasingly difficult to use, but not impossible. You often have to argue with the anthology's commentary and organization if you're not focusing on English literature as the mirror of a sexist, racist, classist, and imperialistic culture. But it's probably good for students to be aware of those arguments.

Until 1993, to take one example, readers of the medieval quest Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were informed that Gawain was "a man wholly dedicated to Christian ideals." Part of the poem's uniqueness lay in combining "a comedy … of manners and a profoundly Christian view of character and its destiny." This invited the reader to consider how "character," understood in the work's religious context, develops over the course of a specific narrative. With a little background from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, students could begin to see the deep ethical appeal of this medieval romance. The old headnote didn't prejudge one's response to the poem's meaning. Does Gawain fail because he breaks his word in avoiding death? Or, given that the Arthurian court makes light of his failure, does the poem teach forgiveness? Since the 7th edition in 2000, however, all that remains is that "Sir Gawain is being measured against a moral and Christian ideal of chivalry." To be fair, the later editions explain the medieval ideal of "troth" (keeping faith, being true) better than the previous ones. But they lose the rich suggestions about character, then blur the ethical issues by loose writing: are "moral" and "Christian" ideals the same? And if the poem is about measuring up to an ideal, the reader is unlikely to attend to the character's development. The editors even refer to Gawain's ideal as "his" truth—as if keeping faith was true for him, but maybe not for us. Like other editing decisions in recent years, these revisions downgrade the work's religious background and needlessly direct the reader away from the complex ethical appeal of English literature.

A number of the politically oriented headnotes raise similar questions. The more recent editions of the Romantic part of the anthology have included excerpts from Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others on the French Revolution. Burke had earlier "championed many liberal causes," write the editors, and his "opponents and allies alike were surprised at the strength of his conviction that the French Revolution was a disaster." Mary Wollstonecraft, by contrast, is introduced as being "outraged at the weakness of [Burke's] arguments and … exaggerated rhetoric." If I were encountering these writers for the first time, I'd be on the lookout for weak arguments and exaggerated rhetoric in Burke—not surprising in an author who'd betrayed his earlier beliefs. Since the editors fail to note that Burke considered religion the basis of civil society or that he promoted reform based on constitutional principles, I would be ignorant of his deepest beliefs. It would not occur to me that his convictions might actually bear more weight than Wollstonecraft's.

Even though I'm quarreling about how the Norton organizes and introduces its works, I'm not quarreling with its announced criterion: to retain what is taught and add what people desire. A version of that criterion is, in my view, crucial to good literary judgment. Think about it: in one sense it doesn't matter what's in the Norton. What matters is what's read and remembered and treasured and loved over decades by millions of readers. This is the criterion of "the common reader," explored at various points in Samuel Johnson's work. In his 1763 "Preface to Shakespeare," for instance, Johnson writes that Shakespeare "has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit …. [H]is works … are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure." He identifies this principle in a biography of the poet Thomas Gray, which is oddly missing from the Norton. Although he generally disliked Gray—as a rather lazy professor, Gray didn't have to support himself by the pen—Johnson rejoices "to concur with the common reader" in praising Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. "[F]or by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must finally be decided all claim to poetical honors."

There's a lot in these sentences. Critics, scholars, and teachers, Johnson says, often read to gratify their "literary prejudices." By contrast, "common" readers go back to books and poems for pleasure. That's how the claim to literary fame begins. That's what should merit consideration for a place in the Norton. I love illustrating this by devoting a day each year to "bad poetry"—deservedly forgotten works from the 17th and 18th centuries. By this time in the semester, my students have read Chaucer, Sidney, Shakespeare, and Milton. They can easily see that my favorite bad poem, "Dr. Duncan's 'Moral Hints to the Rising Generation,' " (1783), should not make the cut:

Rouse then, exert thy talents, neither weak,
Nor 'mid the sons of dulness doom'd to sneak.
Get learning: 'tis the grace of Science fair,
That gives the lib'ral mind its noblest air

But the criterion of the common reader is just the "test" of literary merit. Pleasure gets the book on our shelf but doesn't tell us why it deserves fame—or keep it there for long. How does the poem achieve its beauty? What does it tell us about human nature, the good society, God? To quote Johnson again, "the mind can only repose upon the stability of truth." That's where Johnson himself located his critical work. That's where the teacher and anthology maker legitimately come in. And that's precisely why the critical apparatus of the Norton—the headnotes and footnotes—are so important.

In addition to telling the confused reader that Chaucer's "showres soote" are simply the freshening rains of April, the editors need to give some indication of the value and meaning of the author. Accomplishing this without giving way to one's "literary prejudices" and "dogmatism" is difficult. But they should try harder—much harder—especially because professors and students who use this anthology pay more heed to its judgments than they often should.

The Burke-Wollstonecraft selections, like the Defoe excerpt, occur in sections of the anthology called "Thematic Clusters." These are the most changeable parts of the anthology. Even more than the authors and works in the main part of the Norton, these short selections reflect changing literary and social questions of today. And so they should. The clusters in the 3rd edition (1974) included medieval "Contempt for the World" and 18th-century "Genius," which raised questions that readers are not much interested in today. But as any teacher knows from constructing a reading packet, you choose a snippet in order to illustrate your own point or to frame your own approach to a question, whether that is "Renaissance Love and Desire" or "The Gothic." That leads inevitably to objections like the ones I've made. But what's the alternative?

One alternative is to provide more variety among the "thematic clusters." If the Norton editors are concerned about unfairly neglected works, they could add a cluster on English hymns—Cowper comes to mind, along with Watts and Wesley in the 18th century; or Newman, John Mason Neale, and Christina Rossetti in the Victorian volume. They could include material from Walter Scott's Talisman to complicate their treatment of "Romantic Orientalism." More important, the rest of the anthology should include as many full works as possible. Here the Norton is to be commended. Recent editions of the anthology have included the full texts of Paradise Lost, Johnson's Rasselas, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, and many other works. Together with over a thousand additional texts in a supplemental e-book, available for the first time to purchasers of the 9th edition, this gives the teacher more flexibility and responsibility.

No one understood his literary responsibilities better than Johnson himself. In his Life of Milton, he wrote, "Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason." That's where the true power of literature lies. I regret that the final work in the Norton's first volume is Cowper's "The Castaway," the poem of a mentally ill man who was convinced that God had abandoned him. But it is an imaginatively true account of such a state of mind. It complements the very first poem in the anthology, "Caedmon's Hymn," which resulted from another spiritual failure. For our first poet, however, the sense of inadequacy was completely sane. He just wasn't up to the task of participating in his monastery's after-dinner singing. An angel gave him a hymn of praise that celebrated the Creation, and with that poem English literary history began. Put those texts together with Sir Gawain, Paradise Lost, and Johnson's own sense of inadequacy, and your view of English literature is different from the subtext of the Norton. You're likely to experience something closer to the power made perfect in weakness.

Daniel E. Ritchie is professor of English and director of the Humanities Program at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author most recently of The Fullness of Knowing: Modernity and Postmodernity from Defoe to Gadamer (Baylor Univ. Press, 2010).

1. Cyrena N. Pondrom, ADE Bulletin, Vol. 91, p. 25.

2. Kevin Dettmar, "Tales from the Cutting Room Floor," English Language Notes, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 197-204.

3. Jennifer Howard, "The Literary Anthology, Revised and Excised," Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 21, 2007.

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