Elegant Extracts

Leah Price

  • The Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Christopher Ricks
    Oxford, 690 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 19 214182 1
  • The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume One edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt
    Norton, 2974 pp, £22.50, December 1999, ISBN 0 393 97487 1
  • The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume Two edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt
    Norton, 2963 pp, £22.50, February 2000, ISBN 0 393 97491 X
  • The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume One edited by David Damrosch
    Longman, 2963 pp, US $53.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 321 01173 2
  • The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume Two edited by David Damrosch
    Longman, 2982 pp, US $53.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 321 01174 0
  • Night & Horses & The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature edited by Robert Irwin
    Allen Lane, 480 pp, £25.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9153 4
  • News that Stays News: The 20th Century in Poems edited by Simon Rae
    Faber, 189 pp, £9.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 20060 5
  • Time’s Tidings: Greeting the 21st Century by Carol Ann Duffy
    Anvil, 157 pp, £7.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 85646 313 2
  • Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the 20th Century in Poetry edited by Peter Forbes
    Penguin, 640 pp, £12.99, February 1999, ISBN 0 14 058899 X

Anthologies attract good haters. In the 1790s, the reformer Hannah More blamed their editors for the decay of morals: to let people assume that you had read the entire work from which an anthology piece was excerpted, she warned girls, was no better than lying outright. In the 1840s, less predictably, Engels took time out from The Condition of the Working Class in England to sneer at the anthologies littering the sofa tables of the Manchester bourgeosie. In the 1980s, the American poet David Antin charged that ‘anthologies are to poets as the zoo is to animals.’ More recently, Marjorie Perloff called for undergraduates to swear off Evian, in the hope that tap-water drinkers could afford unabridged books rather than hackneyed fragments.

Nobody seems to be listening. Last year set records: even without counting the millennial gift books already piling up on remainder tables, 1999 marked the appearance of Christopher Ricks’s successor to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, published a hundred years ago, revised in 1939, and followed in 1972 by Helen Gardner’s New Oxford Book; of the Longman Anthology of British Literature, a brashly devolutionary challenger to the Norton Anthology of English Literature’s supremacy in the American textbook market; and, in the last month of the last century, of the Norton’s own radically overhauled seventh edition, which opens with a new translation of Beowulf commissioned from Seamus Heaney for the occasion (also available as a freestanding volume). These anthologies are making literary history, not just reporting it.

The original Norton Anthology of English Literature might have disclaimed that aspiration. Few buyers of the 1962 edition could have predicted how many variations its formula would inspire: the Norton Anthology of American Literature, of African American Literature, of Literature by Women and of World Masterpieces, to name just a few. Nor could they have foreseen its success on the export market. The Norton, on whose readers the sun never sets, has a longer reach than the Longman, which for copyright reasons is not yet available outside North America. Yet, like Heaney’s subtly ‘Hiberno-English’ translation of Beowulf, the Norton has never abandoned its roots. The footnotes translating ‘rounders’ as ‘baseball’ might once have limited the anthology’s sphere of influence, but baseball, too, has spread around the globe. In an essay in the latest edition, Geoffrey Nunberg notes that ‘it is rare to find a single page of an English-language novel or newspaper that does not reveal what nation it was written in,’ and although the Norton does not include a single text from its own country of publication – unless you count the editorial apparatus – his point could be applied just as well to the anthology itself. But the expansion of American higher education has never accounted for more than a part of the Norton’s sales, and its table of contents sets pedagogical agendas in India, Ireland, even Britain.

This is the kind of response that other publishers dream of. Until last year, however, few did more than dream. The most authoritative competitor, the Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973), was no match for the Norton either in its ability to mould its raw materials into an unstated argument, or in its editors’ willingness to reinvent their project in edition after edition. But a captive audience makes for high stakes – both cultural and commercial. In a country where publishers compete to have their textbooks assigned in university courses as fiercely as Coke and Pepsi vie for contracts to stock campus vending machines, it seems less surprising that Longman has challenged Norton’s near-monopoly than that no one did so before. In 1993, when scare stories about ethnic quotas on syllabuses were invading the otherwise unliterary pages of the Wall Street Journal, the last edition of the Norton took pains to deny that ‘the editors of the anthology simply reproduce, or even help establish, the traditional “canon” of English literature,’ The new edition’s more nuanced preface points out that the anglophone world has never had an Academy. Within the limits of the free market, though, the Norton has earned the authority of an Académie Française combined with that of an Index librorum prohibitorum.

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