Increasing the Deadness
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.
Students don't choose their textbooks. Teachers choose for them.
Here, each volume weighing in at about four pounds as it enters the lists against the venerable champion Norton, is the Longman Anthology of British Literature. Teachers will love it, not necessarily because it is much better, or different, from the Norton, but because they can be compared, then praised or derided, for the ways they are different. About four-fifths of the selections are identical, just as the Norton has gone through six editions, trumpeting improvements as it keeps about four-fifths of the same material in all six. It is Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose masquerading as Vive la différence.
Students could care less, of course, though they are the ones who will be asked to lug these books around while they take a survey course that will require them to read less than one-fifth of the whole thing. Though the binding, paper, and printing are good, their huge weight argues against anyone enjoying reading from them; they may not be as bad in this respect as the one-volume Shakespeares, but they are trying to be.
Why are there so many English majors? Two prominent reasons are that students like to read literature and that they are aware that among college subjects English has little need of the textbooks that deaden the academic study of almost anything. At a single stroke, these anthologies attack the desire to read and increase the deadness. They may be useful as reference books, but who refers to them? Teachers, mostly.
Since the Longman is challenging the Norton, it must simultaneously [End Page 195] offer something different while reassuring those who want a standard anthology that it isn't going overboard, as the Penguin Anthology of Renaissance Verse did by abolishing authors. So, for example, near the beginning of volume 2 are Blake and Burns, but while they are side-by-side in the Norton, in between them in the Longman are "Perspectives: The Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade," Mary Robinson, "Perspectives: The Wollstonecraft Controversy and the Rights of Women," and Joanna Baillie. These are by now familiar moves, but since but you can't abandon decent selections from Blake, Burns, et al. when you expand the canon, you end up with a monster of just under three thousand pages, about 15 percent more than volume 2 of the Norton.
Alas, those who don't like it probably will not cavil at the weight but rather at the selections: too politically correct--who is Mary Robinson anyway? But, as I say, teachers love to do battle this way. Avoiding that, I can still note that there probably is no good reason for including Frankenstein, which is readily available in lots of editions, and that the principle of massively expanding gradually exhausts itself: the twentieth century gets half as much space as the nineteenth, and the second half is egregiously and skimpily represented by four authors--Naipaul, Kureishi, Drabble, Larkin (with exactly four poems)--plus "Perspectives: Whose Language?" which manages to slip in Seamus Heaney but with no poems.
As for volume 1, I note that the Marie Boroff translation of Sir Gawain seems now, alas, to have achieved institutional status, that Othello, such a horrible play in many respects, is now the Shakespeare, that too many footnotes seem more designed to show the learning of the annotator than to be of much help to a student, and that Congreve has disappeared. The sky will not fall.
What I really liked is the cover to volume 2 (volume 1 is okay, too--the frontispiece to The Book of Kells): John William Waterhouse's Pre-Raphaelite "Destiny," which someone found in the town hall in Burnley. A young woman, probably pregnant, stands sideways to a mirror, holding a blue bowl to her lips; near her, a tome and a globe; in the mirror are reflected the boats of empire heading out to sea. You could cut out as many as seven hundred pages of the Victorian section, substitute some splendid Dover books for a buck (a Tennyson, an Arnold, both Brownings, two Wildes, Christina Rossetti, Alice), and start building a real course on the period from what is suggested in this painting. You'd greatly increase the chances of students enjoying what they read, and you'd give yourself a much greater opportunity to teach students to use their voices and become what Frost called ear readers, thereby conveying how much more there is to Victorian life and literature than Problems that need Perspectives.
Roger Sale is professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington.