- Anthologizing Matters: The Poetry and Prose of Recovery Work
“Let our readers be assured that (as matters are managed among the four or five different cliques who control our whole literature in controlling the larger portion of our critical journals,) it requires no small amount of courage, to an author whose subsistence lies in his pen, to hint, even, that any thing good, in a literary way, can, by any possibility, exist out of the limits of a certain narrow territory.”—Southern Literary Messenger, 18491
My title is intended not only to suggest the necessity of generic diversity in recovery work, but also, of course, to underscore the efforts (the “prose”) that underlie the pleasures of rooting around in rare book rooms and well-equipped research libraries (the “poetry”). Beyond gaining the satisfaction of ushering into print again such writers as Martha Wolfenstein and Onoto Watanna, I have been reminded that a number of nontrivial, non-intellectual realities help determine what can or cannot be accomplished in today’s corporatized academy and its affiliated publishing culture. I will touch here upon the role of power and privilege of varying sorts in recovery work and in the anthologizing and criticism that complement it. With examples drawn principally from nineteenth-century American women’s writing, because it is the field in which I have worked most, I will outline some of the central challenges in recovery work today. These challenges are aesthetic, political, and economic, and both internal and external to the subject field and to the profession; although I separate them for ease of discussion, they are inextricably interconnected. Some of the remarks that follow will be familiar to those who have completed anthologies, but I believe that the [End Page 36] discussion as a whole will carry new insights for virtually everyone. Many of my observations have relevance for anthologizing in general, as well for the writing of white males, whose work has not enjoyed the recovery efforts expended elsewhere. At the heart of this discussion and the questions it raises resides my uncomfortable awareness of the degree to which economics drives the recovery process. As Duncan Wu has observed of the elements in anthologizing that scholars resist, those related to money are among the most frequent: “Scholars haven’t traditionally needed to think about the commercial marketplace, and there remains the suspicion that it’s improper for them to do so” (n.p.).
“Standards”: The Politics of Aesthetics
Composing an anthology creates a miniature canon, no matter how resistant the editor is to the vexed notions of goodness and importance (see Kenneth Warren; Wu). By definition, what’s in is important and good, and what’s omitted is at least potentially questionable. Every responsible editor ponders long to formulate the best selection criteria. Traditionally, anthologies are compiled on three bases: excellence, representativeness (and/or comprehensiveness), and interest, often working in some combination. 2 These criteria were as important in the case of nineteenth-century texts, such as E. C. Stedman’s An American Anthology, as they are for today’s Heath and Norton anthologies of American literature. All three criteria frustrate precise definition. Excellence putatively refers to the Arnoldian aesthetic—the best that’s been thought and said—and, as we know, the best tends to be self-perpetuating and conservative (in the negative sense). Ironically, although the term has been deconstructed now for a number of years, 3 literary scholars often still cling to this nebulous term in part because of its self-justificatory elements. After all, if we aren’t contributing to excellence, what are we doing? Advancing mediocrity? Making money? Reviews of Rufus Griswold’s The Female Poets of America (1849) indicate [End Page 37] that adjudicating excellence concerned our predecessors as much as it does us. The questions of who determines excellence and by what standards are still too often elided. This criterion, however, often polices the realm of the aesthetic in contradistinction from the political, a distinction I have explored elsewhere (“The Conversation”).
“Representativeness” incurs other difficulties. Here there appears to be a more concrete, objective standard, but the difficulties of claiming representative status remain as tangled as those...