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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 463-467

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Shooting Niagara

Donald G. Marshall

[Works Cited]

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Edited by Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2001.

Anthologies are at least as old as schooling. Teachers carry in their heads a jukebox of canned lectures (short or long) on various topics, along with time-tested examples. Where the examples take the form of texts (and anthologies belong to the literate world), you have the immaterial condition for an anthology. Tell, Muse, wandering in the sands of history, who first copied out into an actual book the treasured passages he (surely this unsung hero was a he?) exhibited in his lectures? The gain in pedagogical efficiency and control must have been gratifying. Students could all have the relevant examples without wandering unsupervised in the forest of texts. Over the centuries in the West, florilegia, commonplace books, catenae, compendia, specimens, pages choisis, and a numberless array of similar forms of textbook have furnished one of the very material bases of pedagogy.

The zone where teachers' choices of exemplary texts overlap is called "the canon." Perhaps in antiquity there was something like a state board of education that established a uniform curriculum, but if it existed, one can understand why the monks of the Middle Ages preferred copying Ovid and Seneca and failed to preserve that institution's records. In the contemporary world, at the higher levels of education, the continuing critique of disciplinary authority erodes the intellectual justifications for anthologies. This body of critique does not have the effect of eliminating anthologies. It simply turns the process of their creation and dissemination over to the economic forces of textbook publishing. Not that economic forces act alone. Those of us in the provinces—I'm speaking metaphorically, not literally—are well aware that a small group of "agenda setters" in the profession determine the issues and the texts we must all read and teach. The penalty for independent judgment by a provincial is that his students will fail if they pursue a career in academe and he himself will be banished to the margins of unread irrelevance. Publishers know enough to close their ears to high-flying critiques of the canon and to keep those ears to the ground, finding out what teachers think they have to teach—you could call it "diagnosing the discipline's pedagogical imaginary." (Indeed, can't one predict an anthology of critiques of anthologies?) Meanwhile, diligent and clear-eyed realists from the profession—including a few "leaders" who quietly set aside any lofty theoretical scruples about canonization [End Page 463] and disciplinary authority—recognize that a widely adopted anthology is the mother lode.

No gold mine has been more productive than the W. W. Norton Company's. Say, Muse, who first star'd (one needs the Keatsian intensity here) at this business opportunity? In the first edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, M. H. Abrams (1962) thanks George P. Brockway and John Benedict. Were they the ones who look'd at each other with a wild surmise? Whoever they were (and somebody, perhaps even somebody at Norton, should be writing a meaty magazine essay or a slim and sprightly volume to tell this tale), they deserve a prominent place in the Valhalla of academic publishing. And after English literature, American literature, world literature, African American literature, contemporary fiction, literature by women, poetry, modern poetry, modern and contemporary poetry, short fiction, Western music even! (we're not talking country here)—what wisdom? Winner of the Hans Brinker Award for Leaving No Gap Unplugged, weighing in at 4 lbs., 3oz., and xxxviii + 2,624 pages is The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (twins!). The obstetrician's bill? You can dandle this baby on your knee for a mere $72.45 (I admire the scrupulous refusal of exploitation that denies itself a nice, round $75.00). As Dorothy Parker once said of Atlas Shrugged, this book makes many demands on its reader, the heaviest on his forearms.

And what do we find when we lift the hood? Comprehensive is the polite word...


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