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  • General Reference Works
  • Gary Scharnhorst

This year a modest reversal of recent trends in the publication of reference works occurred, particularly a revival in specialized literary histories. Such trade presses as Greenwood, Wiley, McFarland, and Cambridge—especially the appearance of new Cambridge Companions and Cambridge Histories—dominate this market niche. While these analytical volumes and chronicles are valuable teaching tools because they consolidate research in emerging fields, they break little new ground, unlike bibliographies, once a standard type of reference work and today a species of scholarship as endangered as the snail darter.

i Literary Histories

A perfect case in point is the profusion in 2015 of histories of American poetry. The most comprehensive of the group is Cambridge History of American Poetry, which contains more than 1,300 pages and 50 chapters on such predictable topics as "Emerson and His Contemporaries" and Latino, Asian American, and African American poetry and poetics as well as essays on such neglected subjects as Native American oral tradition, early American poetry in languages other than English, and children's and comic poetry by such distinguished scholars as Christoph Irmscher, Mary Loeffelholz, Ed Folsom, Wendy Martin, David E. E. Sloane, Charles Altieri, Robin G. Schultze, Cristanne Miller, Roger Gilbert, and Willard Spiegelman. The volume is neatly complemented by Cambridge Companion to American Poets, which is decidedly [End Page 439] unfashionable in its resistance to the theoretical "death of the author." Almost every title of the 31 biographically moored essays in this collection contains the name of an actual poet. Contributors include Irmscher on the Fireside Poets, Kevin J. Hayes on Edgar Allan Poe, David S. Reynolds on Walt Whitman, Robert Faggen on Herman Melville, Martha Nell Smith on Emily Dickinson, and Steven Gould Axelrod on Robert Lowell. Together these two books comprise an indispensable history of the genre.

Though similar in scope and purpose to the two Cambridge studies, the two-volume American Poets and Poetry: From the Colonial Era to the Present, ed. Jeffrey Gray, Mary McAleer Balkun, and James McCorkle (Greenwood), pales by comparison. The encyclopedia contains 146 signed entries by 115 scholars, most of them brief biographical sketches of poets but also 32 topical entries (e.g., Beat poetry, imagism, Harlem Renaissance, ecopoetics). Most of the contributors are junior scholars, though there are some major exceptions (e.g., Folsom on Whitman, Marjorie Perloff on modernism, Paula Bennett on Lydia Sigourney, and William Scheick on Edward Taylor). Still, the entries in general are uneven in both length and quality. The editors disinter a few obscure and long-buried poets for brief examination; for example, Hannah Griffits, whose verse apparently survives only in manuscript, and Clement Moore, best known (if at all) for "The Night Before Christmas." A minor reservation: the table of contents fails to identify the contributors. Instead, their names appear only at the end of articles.

Similarly, History of American Poetry: Contexts-Developments-Readings, ed. Oliver Scheiding, René Dietrich, Clemens Spahr (WVT), strains to distinguish itself from other projects like (but better than) it. "The guiding principle of this handbook," the editors announce, "derives from a belief in a context-based close reading," as if this principle were an innovation. Each chapter focuses "on two poets set into dialogue with each other" (e.g., Anne Bradstreet and Taylor, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes), though even the editors concede that the structure of the book is quite conventional: "Until 1950, this history largely follows most handbooks and companions in dividing the field." Almost all of the 31 chapters are written by German scholars, few of them well known in the field, though they pay lip service to such minor poets as Francis Daniel Pastorius, Richard Lewis, and George Moses Horton. [End Page 440]

Organizationally, The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry, ed. Walter B. Kalaidjian, is trendier than the studies already noted. Unlike Cambridge Companion to American Poets, for example, none of essay titles in this volume so much as mentions the name of a poet. Instead, the 19 essays, devoted to verse published roughly between 1890 and 1945, focus on such topics as the Harlem Renaissance, the Fugitives, the confessional and Beat poets, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 439-449
Launched on MUSE
2017-09-01
Open Access
No
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