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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 329-339

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Teaching with Anthologies

Paul Lauter

I was once embarrassed by using anthologies, much less by creating them. I remembered E. E. Cummings's (1944: xi) poetic joke at the expense of Louis Untermeyer:

mr u will not be missed
who as an anthologist
sold the many on the few
not excluding mr u.

The rap on anthologies was that they were superficial: they offered a hop, skip, and jump through literary history instead of in-depth views of the truly great writers. There were too many authors, even in the most limited compilations; those included were too uneven in quality; and the multitude of options kept students from focusing on the true aesthetic value of literary texts. Therefore, the argument ran, it was best to teach whole works of value rather than the smorgasbord of brief texts characteristic of even the best anthologies.

Now, I have to acknowledge that in some courses I do, indeed, use novels or story collections by individual authors. But more recently I have not merely stopped apologizing for using anthologies but begun genuinely to value them. Here's why.

I was brought up on the New Critical analysis of the "monuments of unaging intellect," to use W. B. Yeats's phrase for the "great books." In curricular terms, this approach does imply complete books, usually novels or collections of poetry by single authors. That kind of teaching was made practical, [End Page 329] in fact, by the post-World War II paperback revolution. The tendency, in this teaching strategy, is to view works as isolated aesthetic objects that relate primarily, if they relate to anything, to one another—with anxiety, perhaps, but intertextually, certainly. For in this view the primary connections among works are those defined by the medium of language: words, images, sounds. T. S. Eliot's poetry, notably "Prufrock" and The Waste Land, provides perhaps the paradigmatic New Critical examples for this understanding of literary works. His strategy of allusion, quotation, and citation exemplifies one way of thinking about not only the creation but also the analysis and teaching of literature.

I am not arguing that this approach necessarily excludes social context and history, only that if one emphasizes primarily literary monuments, the putatively great books of the great writers, context and history become relatively less significant than internal and intertextual linguistic and aesthetic concerns. Indeed, an understanding of "tradition"—as in the influential essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"—rapidly narrows from something Eliot (1950: 4) calls "the historical sense" to "the whole of the literature of Europe" (my italics). But what if one wishes, rather—and especially in introductory classes—to help students see literature as one form, albeit an exceptional and important one, of textual production? What if one wishes to emphasize the differences and similarities among texts at any particular historical moment? Or to observe the processes of social as well as cultural change that help answer the question "Why this thing in this way at this time?" To observe change, to account for difference and similarity, to comprehend the historical conditions of textual production—all, it seems to me, lead us to a different strategy, to the comprehensive anthology rather than to separate books by individual authors.

Before I say why, I want to make clear that I am not drawing absolute distinctions here, just pointing to tendencies. One can surely present the contexts for longer, more prominent literary works in a course devoted to a sequence or simply a collection of such literature. Indeed, one can now teach such works from most anthologies. Nor does the alternative imply the exclusion or downplaying of language, or even of that specialized form of it that one finds in works of literature. As an editor (of The Heath Anthology of American Literature [Lauter et al. 2002]), I can say that one is always trying to strike a balance between including in an anthology works of dominating literary value and other texts that remain interesting by virtue of their representative qualities or historical significance. All the same, the tendencies I am sketching are...


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