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THE CABINET OF IRISH LITERATURE: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON IRISH ANTHOLOGIES* MARGARET KELLEHER I. THE “CULTURE OF THE EXCERPT” among the flurry of reviews and commentaries that followed the publication of volumes I to III of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing in 1991, those of most enduring interest moved beyond the heat of the moment to a more general reflection on the role of anthologies themselves. Francis Mulhern’s 1993 essay, “A Nation, Yet Again” began, for example, with the cautionary pronouncement, by then all too evident, that “[a]nthologies are strategic weapons in literary politics.”1 Mulhern acknowledged that “authored texts of all kinds—poems, novels, plays, reviews, analyses—play more or less telling parts in a theatre of shifting alliances and antagonisms ,” but he argued for the special rhetorical force of anthologies in their “simulation of self evidence.” Here it is as it was: the very fact of re-presentation, flanked by equally selfattesting editorial learning, deters anyone so merely carping as a critic. And so, in principle, whole corpuses, genres, movements and periods can be “finished”— resolved, secured, perfected or, as the case may be, killed off. Anthological initiatives may be purely antiquarian, but more often they are not. As early as 1984, Seamus Deane’s first public mooting of the idea of “a comprehensive anthology” was strongly opposed by poet and critic Eiléan A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON IRISH ANTHOLOGIES 68 * Research for this article was conducted during my year as John J. Burns Visiting Scholar at Boston College. I am also indebted to John Atteberry, Andrew Carpenter, Claire Connolly, Robin Lydenberg, Lucy McDiarmid, Kevin O’Neill, and Gemma Kelleher for their assistance. 1 Francis Mulhern, ‘A Nation, Yet Again,’ review of Vols. I–III of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, in Radical Philosophy 65 (Autumn 1993), 23. Ní Chuilleanáin.2 And immediately after FDA’s publication in 1991, she presented one of the most memorably discomfiting evaluations: It is the trap of all anthologies: by “defining,” that is excluding, they create a false inclusiveness in which the invisible exiles somehow do not count. Every claim to comprehensiveness is thus a devaluing of difference and so of the reality of a literary culture, past or present... . It is not the wrong choices or the predominance of pressure groups over individual talents , or the sexism—all of which are so evident—but the turning away of attention from the ground where the action is happening to the figures of the international talent-spotters half-visible behind their glassed-in gallery.3 Read from an international perspective, the Irish debate about anthologization and its omissions may appear a very late entry into the AngloAmerican canon wars of the 1980s. On the other hand, the above reflections anticipate increasing recent attention to the anthology as a distinct literary genre, attention evident in works such as Barbara Benedict’s Making the Modern Reader: Cultural Mediation in Early Modern Literary Anthologies (1996), Anne Ferry’s Tradition and the Individual Poem: An Inquiry into Anthologies (2001), and Leah Price’s The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot (2000). Overall, these investigations share an investment in the significance of the anthology—viewed most positively by Ferry who claims that its influence can be discerned “in virtually all the revisionary moments in literary history since the sixteenth century.”4 The study of anthologies recently entered into a rare level of media coverage of a young academic’s career; in November 2002 a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times reported a “bidding war” between Harvard and UCLA over Leah Price, a scholar of Victorian literature. Sardonically, the reporter remarked that her specializations included “the role played by— gasp—abridgements in the role of the novel.”5 Yet Price’s engaging study of the anthology’s role in the rise of the novel—a genre that, as she shows, forms a test case “within a culture of the excerpt”—is explicitly informed by the current economics of publishing. She notes that because much of A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON IRISH ANTHOLOGIES 69 2 See Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, review of Heroic Styles: The Tradition...


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