Duke University Press
George Drake - Placing the Canon: Literary History and the Longman Anthology of British Literature - Pedagogy 1:1 Pedagogy 1.1 (2001) 197-201

Roundtable

Placing the Canon:
Literary History and the Longman Anthology of British Literature

George Drake


The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. 6 vols. New York: Longman, 2000.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 2000.

My view of the new Longman Anthology of British Literature results in part from my situation. I teach in a small department with limited course offerings, which means that for many of my students, surveys will be their primary exposure to literature written before 1900, and their understanding of literary history will inevitably be influenced by the choice of an anthology. The particular survey I teach--"British Literature 1660-1832"--can scarcely attain "coverage" in ten weeks, and there are few opportunities for a more intensive study of the period. However, I am by no means resigned to teaching literature in a cultural vacuum, and while no anthology will ever completely satisfy the desire to historicize literary works, the Longman makes the job a little easier.

While the Longman includes many texts that have received more critical attention in recent years, the editors also have paid attention to what has been happening in classrooms and, particularly, to assignments. It offers helpful starting points for investigating constructions of race, class, and gender, but also for questions of form and literary history. Because it includes a range of genres that more closely approximates what constituted "literature" before the Romantic period, and because it includes reviews and other responses, it helps in situating formal choices. The Longman's contextual materials are no substitute for library assignments, but, especially for those courses that touch briefly on a great many things, it presents a history that is not simply a series of monologues, but an ongoing conversation.

The seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature has made many welcome changes as well--some of them identical, as in the inclusion of The Beggar's Opera and all of Frankenstein. However, the anthologies differ subtly in their approach to situating texts. Appearing first in the Norton's selection from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary is the word anthology, defined as "a collection of flowers." Neither the Norton nor the Longman seriously skimps on the flowers of the canon, and the two differ more in their representation of how flowers grow than in their assumptions about what constitutes a blossom. In Johnson's time, literary anthologies were typically collections of "beauties" or "flowers" excerpted from longer works, so that a [End Page 197] character portrait such as Pope's Man of Ross was often better known than the poem from which it came. As John Guillory (1993: 101) has noted, the pedagogical use of early anthologies was exemplary; some were used in teaching elocution, subordinating author and work to a canon of taste. While that kind of excerpting is not wholly absent from either of the new anthologies--for both, Byron's Juan and Haideé episode is a flower than can be snipped from the context of cantos 2-4 of Don Juan--the primary object of attention is the representative work of major authors. What has changed since the earliest anthologies is a gradually increasing attention to context--if only the context of the author's work--and more recently an attention to context as something constitutive rather than simply background. The Longman editors make what, in the midst of the canon wars, is surely a traditional claim: "Great literature is double in nature: it is deeply rooted in its cultural moment, and yet it transcends this moment as well, speaking to new readers in distant times and places, long after the immediate circumstances of its production have been forgotten" (xii). They unabashedly collect flowers and do not hesitate to call them great, but with an increased attention to the roots and to blooms once seen as weeds. While it does not approach the more radical measures taken by recent period anthologies, such as Jerome McGann's Romantic Period Verse (1993), which successfully decenters the "big six" romantic poets in part through organizing the poems by year rather than by author and paying much more attention to neglected poets who belong to the Romantic period but not to romanticism, the Longman does shift the focus toward seeing texts in relation to other texts. The Longman Anthology is moving not away from the canon but rather, in Roland Barthes's famous formulation, from work to text. By including contemporary responses to works, including texts (as well as images) that go beyond the usual range of genres, and by highlighting exchanges between authors, the Longman offers at least a sketch of the conditions of textual production.

The Longman proclaims a "new literary geography" on its cover. Ostensibly, this refers to its focus on British literature, as opposed to the Norton's English, though of course the Norton has not been limited strictly to England proper. But it also announces a commitment to placing literature geographically and historically. It is, as the seventh edition of the Norton demonstrates, in some ways a limiting move--the new Norton has modestly expanded its twentieth-century selections to represent anglophone literatures, including Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, whereas the Longman confines itself to the British Isles. But it at least makes possible a more focused [End Page 198] approach to the cultural and historical conditions that produced literature in a relatively small geographical area.

What do we teach in survey courses? Even in the most compressed surveys, the question is clearly not exhausted by a list of authors or even of texts. Robert Scholes (1998: 109) has recently argued that the future of English studies lies in a canon of methods rather than a canon of texts. What methods, then, do we teach in a survey course? Since many survey courses are also introductory courses, that might include poetics and rhetoric and some attention to history if not historicism. I would argue that what we primarily teach, however, and what distinguishes a survey course from a more narrowly focused or thematic course, is literary history. Even by our choice of dates (or by the anthology's choice of dates, since both maintain traditional period divisions) we teach at the very least a rudimentary form of literary history by organizing it into periods. That, of course, begs the questions: How do we teach literary history at the survey level? Do we teach a canon through what Nietzsche (1980) called "monumental" history--as a series of "bright and great" moments connected more by identity than by causality--or do we teach representative texts, which may also be great works, in a critical history that attempts to account for change and difference? Even if we regard literary history as purely immanent, as a story that takes place wholly within the literary field, we are nonetheless confronted with a more complex causality than is allowed for by a collection of the high points. Whether we teach a more traditional approach to literary history--and I still find a great deal of the material produced by the old historicists very useful--or whether we draw on the wealth of critical investigations by new historicists, Marxists, and feminists, we already teach much more than a canon of works. The choice of anthologies, I suspect, will have less to do with reading lists than with methods.

In the period I teach, one of the most notable differences between the anthologies is the Longman's inclusion of a wide range of journalism and contemporary reviews. Some of the most exciting recent critical work in my period has focused on the relationship between journalism and literature, in the sense of not only journalism's influence on genres like the novel but its central role in constituting the category of literature itself. Reading Francis Jeffrey's attack on Wordsworth, for example, gives students not only a measure of Wordsworth's experiment in poetry, but also an understanding of the class-based distinctions that separated proper literary subjects from Wordsworth's improper rustics. Reading in turn Wordsworth's absurd judgment of Felicia Hemans--based largely on her domestic skills--will help to explain the gendering of literature. [End Page 199]

Many who have taught from the Norton will miss favorite works in the Longman--but may also find them cut in Norton seven. A colleague is disappointed to find a smaller selection from Gulliver's Travels; I am disappointed to find only a brief part of Rasselas, which I regularly teach in its entirety. In the Longman, Collins has been relegated to "context," and Matthew Prior has disappeared altogether. But there are compensations. As much as I admire Congreve's Way of the World, which in the Norton has represented both Restoration and eighteenth-century drama, the Longman's Man of Mode is surely more representative of the Restoration. The Beggar's Opera is a welcome addition to both anthologies, and I find texts that I had already been photocopying, including poems from Hemans's Records of Woman and a larger selection of Rochester. But it is not so much the inclusion of underrepresented authors that impresses me--and both anthologies have done an admirable job of including more texts by women--as the range of genres both "high" and "low" in the Longman. The long eighteenth century was remarkable for its experiments with new forms, and in the Longman we have letters, travel writing, journals, philosophy, and a healthy selection of journalism that goes beyond the usual essays from Addison and Steele. The Longman also goes beyond the boundaries of text and includes Hogarth's Rake's Progress, a small selection of Blake's illuminated Songs of Innocence and of Experience (the new Norton also has selections from Hogarth and Blake), and frequent reproductions of thematically related paintings (one reason for ordering the six-volume option--aside from fewer student complaints about the weight--is simply the wonderful cover art). I will still supplement these with slides, but the reproductions allow students to study the designs. My surveys often include a modestly interdisciplinary focus on the construction of landscapes during the period, and the "Landscape, Pleasure, Power" selection has a useful group of texts from poets, painters, and philosophers.

The Longman Anthology has elsewhere been presented as a skirmish in the canon wars because of the texts it includes or excludes. With the appearance of Norton's seventh edition, the differences in text selection are considerably narrower. Both anthologies offer thematic clusters on slavery, for example, though the Longman's is somewhat more extensive and is situated in the Romantic period, at the time when public debate about slavery was at its peak. Some of the Norton's new additions look particularly attractive, like the selections from Wollstonecraft's Short Residence in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway and Frances Burney's Letters and Journals. But changes to the Norton have been piecemeal, with the result that some of the introductory material looks dated, and the approach continues to be more author-centered. [End Page 200] Even the editing of the texts themselves reflects changes in thinking in the years since the Norton first appeared, when texts were more frequently standardized for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The Longman editors have done less "cleaning up" of the poems I teach, which is welcome--in the Norton, some lines of Pope are unscannable because his elisions have been filled in. These differences will certainly not prompt every teacher of surveys to switch to the Longman (if nothing else, old reading notes are hard to part with), especially since Norton seven incorporates many of the Longman's innovations. Both aim at a more historically based method, but the Longman has provided a wider range of contexts.



George Drake is assistant professor at Central Washington University, where he teaches courses in eighteenth-century British literature and the Romantic period. He recently published "Historical Space in the 'History Of': Between Public and Private in Tom Jones" in ELH.

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ISSN
1533-6255
Print ISSN
1531-4200
Launched on MUSE
2001-01-01
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