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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 311-327

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Murder in the Cathedral:
Editing a Comprehensive Anthology of Modern American Poetry

Cary Nelson


It was in the spring of 1999 that I learned the British edition of my forthcoming Anthology of Modern American Poetry would have to be canceled. My publisher, Oxford University Press, had come to the conclusion they could never sell enough copies of the book to recoup the huge investment they were facing in reprint fees. They had hoped to make a profit on the project, not immediately, to be sure, but after a year or two. Now it looked as if the amounts they were being charged to reprint the poems we were including would throw the book permanently in the red. No small irony there, given the number of left-wing poets I had selected; politically and philosophically in the red, the book was now financially in the red as well. Capitalism was to get the final word in blocking the dissemination, at least on the continent and around the world, of some of America's fierce but forgotten political poets.

The publishing industry is a perfect example of the Marxist argument that base and superstructure are not only entangled and interdependent but also contingent and mutually determining. Yet many readers—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—assume a great deal more independence for the cultural realm than is warranted, especially where intellectual production is at stake. It is becoming increasingly clear that not only large expensive books like this one—an anthology with a total budget (including staff salaries) of over $200,000—but also modest scholarly books with direct production costs of only $5,000 are dependent on specific markets and thus clear financial conditions of possibility. I want to review the intellectual and financial history of this book to give a detailed example of what I mean. [End Page 311]

The largest single cost by far for an anthology reprinting previously published poems is permission fees. Once I had established whether the poem was still in copyright, it was Oxford's job to track down the copyright holder and request the right to reprint the relevant poem or poems. Despite working very efficiently, it took my permissions editor six months to do the job. Sometimes it required several letters just to identify and track down the copyright holder. Then a significant number of publishers did not answer until multiple letters, faxes, and phone calls had been tried. In one case—Holt, Robert Frost's publisher—we received no reply despite five months of trying. So I asked Oxford to send an express mail letter saying we would reprint the poems (and give a fee of $50 per poem) unless we heard otherwise within 48 hours. That got a response.

This was merely one of a number of cases where we had to invent some unique way to handle an individual problem. Often Oxford and I had to play good cop/bad cop or the reverse. Only I, for example, could write a letter threatening to drop an author from the book unless a fee was lowered. It also fell to me to set recommended fee reduction levels for the smaller presses and individual agents, since Oxford had more experience with the larger houses. When tensions rose with a given correspondent, we would routinely switch roles and start again.

Some publishers, like Random House, will set a fee per line of poetry that runs through their whole list of poets. Other publishers, like New Directions, have different fee structures for different authors and poems. Thus a short, famous, frequently reprinted poem may cost more to reprint than a longer little-known poem. We paid more to reprint a six-page excerpt from William Carlos Williams's "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (1955) than we did to reprint the entire 20 pages of his The Descent of Winter (1928). Farrar Straus charged more per line to reprint Randall Jarrell's universally anthologized "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (1945) than for any...


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