Friday, June 19, 2009

Hidden influence of anthologies

Yesterday Buce took up Terry Teachout’s challenge to name fifteen mind-forming books in fifteen minutes. The most striking entry on his list, for my money, was The Portable Faulkner, originally published in 1946. Malcolm Cowley’s selection may have done more than any of Faulkner’s own book-length volumes to establish the writer’s reputation. As Caroline Gordon wrote in her New York Times review, Cowley edited the Portable to demonstrate that “all the books in the [Faulkner] saga are parts of the same living pattern.” After sampling the abridged version, most readers—including Buce and me, for the Portable was my introduction to Faulkner too—went on to explore the entire saga.

Anthologies exercise a far more profound influence upon the formation of our minds than we are prepared to acknowledge. We rarely think to give them any credit because we rarely conceive of them as books. They lead us to books, and then they are discarded.

Thus I compile my intellectual autobiography and honor the writers who built up my mind, such as it is. But it never occurs to me that I first encountered many of those writers between the covers of an anthology. Michael Oakeshott, for example, whose modal logic changed for all time how I think of human knowledge, was a writer whom I discovered in another of the portable anthologies published by the Viking Press—Russell Kirk’s Portable Conservative Reader (1982). The same goes for Levinas. Not only did I first read him in some anthology or other of literary theory. But what is more, the book title that I included on my list of fifteen books in fifteen minutes was a portable volume in all but title (Seán Hand’s Levinas Reader [1989], although I tried to distance myself from the anthological shame of not being able to name one of Levinas’s own books).

In an article written for the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1954) and never reprinted, J. V. Cunningham remarks upon the “enduring popularity of this long-established form which serves as a convenient and adaptable framework into which can be fitted a variety of material.” A few anthologies, he goes on to point out, have even achieved “considerable literary significance in themselves, an example being Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), in which were published for the first time the major poems of Sir Thomas Wyat and Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey. . . .”

The most famous example, of course, is the Greek Anthology, dating from ca. 700 B.C.E. to 1000 C.E. As Cunningham says, “[I]t illustrates the continuity of Greek letters for almost 2,000 years, since the works of the latest period are in language, style and feeling not too distinct from the works of the earliest; and it has had a persistent and considerable influence on later literature.” The same might be said, to take much later examples from another country, of The Best American Short Stories, published annually since 1915, or the annual volume of O. Henry Award-winning stories, published since 1919. These (or anthologies modeled upon them) are likely to be the first story collections ever encountered by young students of creative writing. Indeed, Raymond Carver assigned Short Stories from the Literary Magazines (1970), including a more voluble version of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” before Gordon Lish got his blue pencil on it, when I took creative writing from him during my sophomore year at Santa Cruz.

“The typical modern anthology in the sense of a collection of poems of a given period or nation selected for their excellence and representativeness seems to be an invention of the Latin Renaissance,” Cunningham says. The nineteenth-century introduced the innovation of arranging the texts in chronological order. Some students of literature know the subject only in this form. The Norton anthologies have much to answer for. The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), which sought to substitute a multicultural glop for the standard roster of dead white males, only succeeded in prodding Norton to revise its anthologies to include more “minority voices.”

But that is not the only reason that I refuse to assign anthologies when I teach survey courses in American literature. The more significant reason is that few writers conceive of their texts as anthology pieces. And even if an entire novel is included, its structural integrity—its hope to stand on its own—is sacrificed to the dimensions of a much larger volume. Besides, anthologies are ugly, expensive, and awkward to read. As I tell my students, one of my purposes is to assist them in acquiring the rudiments of a library. And no one displays his college anthologies proudly on his shelves in later years.

There is, however, at least one good word to be said on behalf of anthologies. Some texts, mere slips of paper, like an epigram, or a squib by a writer who wrote nothing else worth saving, or nothing else at all, would be lost forever unless preserved there. Sir Henry Wotton’s epitaph “Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife” is an example of one such text.

But I am thinking especially of anthologies of literature from the Holocaust. In fact, the Oyneg Shabbes Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, the collective activity to record every possible aspect of Jewish life under the Nazis (“to grasp an event at the moment it happened,” as its director Emanuel Ringelblum said), might be described as a massive participatory anthology. The archive was hidden from the Nazis, buried in the rubble of the ghetto and only dug up after the war, in order that “no important fact about Jewish life in wartime shall remain hidden from the world,” Ringelblum wrote. (For an impressive account of the illegal archive see Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007].)

Brilliant writers like Peretz Opoczynski and Chaim Kaplan and lesser writers like Shimon Huberband, Nehemia Titelman, Yehiel Gorny, Nathan Koninski, Estera Karasiówna, Jerzy Winkler, and Hirsh Berlinski were rescued from oblivion and can still be read because of the anthological fury of Jews who refused to grant Hitler a posthumous victory, who believed (in Ringelblum’s words) that “the work was too sacred” and the “social function of O[yneg] S[habbes] too important for the project to be discontinued.”

3 comments:

jseliger said...

Funny you should mention anthologies—I'm about a quarter through Mark McGurl's book The Program Era (where I believe he cites you, unless there's another literary critic named D.G. Myers running around; perhaps you've already read it) and McGurl talks about the tendency toward anthologies in passing. I wish I could find the quote, but I just spent ten minutes of fruitless searching. His purpose, in any event, was in part to draw more attention to precisely the issue you do: the influence that anthologies have even as they're mostly ignored.

When I interviewed T.C. Boyle a few months ago—himself a highly anthologized author—the Norton Anthologies came up:

TCB: You have to put it in the historical context as well. Wordsworth famously carved some poems into a rock—into a rock face, because he didn’t trust paper to last through the centuries. But of course it does. Now it’s out in the ether of the Internet.

JS: And in innumerable Norton Critical Editions—

TCB: [Laughter]. Yeah, that’s right. There are so many of them that the planet is probably tipping toward the English-speaking world just from the weight of those Norton editions.

JS: Some of which I have on my bookshelves.

TCB: Yeah, me too.

JS: Which is interesting the way books travel.


"Tipping toward the English-speaking world." Seems a bit dramatic, and yet I wonder at times.

R. T. said...

I must mention the ubiquitous Norton Anthologies, which were my first introductions to the scope and potential of literature as a freshman in college (way back in the early 60s). I had arrived on campus with some rather vague notions about literature, and my introductory courses--with the Norton anthologies as the required texts--showed me a glimpse of the wide-world of literature that had a profound effect upon me. Many years later, when I had finished one career and pondered a second, I recalled those literature courses and the Norton anthologies; they became belated catalysts for my choice of my second (and current) career. One wonders how many other students were similarly influenced when they were obligated to take literature courses and burdened by lugging around the unwieldy Norton anthologies. The editorial content of the Norton anthologies aside--and that could be fodder for other discussions--they have obviously exercised important influence on countless students.

Jacob said...

As someone who is still (for a few more months) an undergraduate, I thought I'd mention that I love my Norton anthologies. That experience you described, of the Norton opening your eyes to the wider world of literature, is completely true of me. And although I have sometimes wondered how their selections may have limited/changed the progression of my thought toward literature, I have found them to be, by and large, a great starting place. I believe someday I will proudly display my Nortons on my shelf, with all their battle scars and markings. It's not often that one of the foundations of your development in a given area is so well manifested by a single object.