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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 ...

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