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Anthologies of literature are in a world of their own.

Take Norton anthologies. You’ve got English Literature, American Literature, Theory and Criticism… Each with several volumes boasting thousands of titles.

norton anthology of american literature 2

How do they decide what goes in an anthology?

It’s probably going to be students who buy the books, so things which are critically viable: but who’s to say that if a previously non-critically acclaimed text appeared in the Norton Anthology. Would it become critically viable because of this?

I know the books are massive, but they must veto a lot in order to get them just to this size. In in doing this, they’re compiling a list of texts which represent English or American literature. That’s no mean feat.

Take the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume D, Seventh Edition. I bought volumes C, D and E second-hand, and opened Volume D to find a one dollar bill inside. It’s the first I’d ever seen, so I’m definitely taking this as good luck.

Volume D spans 1914-1945, arguably the most important time for American Literature. Not only does the anthology have nearly forty authors, hundreds of titles, a number of of manifestos and WWI texts, but each author has a short biography accompanying their section.

It also opens with an introduction and time-line. This cuts an extra chunk out of the space available for the works in the book.

It has longer texts: Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, among others. It has a lot of poetry. Robert Frost, Mina Loy and Langston Hughes. It has short stories such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams. And, finally, it has extracts from longer texts.

Let’s start with the complete longer works it holds. It boasts nine of them, on the blurb. How do they choose just nine works to represent thirty-one years, including two wars? America is such a big country, that on top of the time-scale they’re attempting to represent, they also need to represent a wide range of identities, ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, classes. How did they choose to publish Nella Larsen’s Quicksand over her Passing, which is much more critically acclaimed? Why do they include T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is arguably a very English text, very much based in London?

How did they choose the poetry they were going to include? Poets write their poetry in collections, and so taking the ‘best’ ones out to put them in an anthology is somewhat sacrilegious in the first place. Robert Frost’s famous poetry: ‘Mending Wall’, ‘The Road Not Taken’ is included, and so is some of his lesser known poetry; his dramatic monologues. The editors did well to include them, but that doesn’t make reading the anthology as good as reading North of Boston as a collection.

Then we get on to the short stories and extracts. Let me be honest: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans is potentially the biggest load of pretentious tosh I have ever read. And I did not read all 900 pages; I didn’t even make it through the extract in the Norton. Why, oh why did they include it? I’m aware that it’s very “American” and Modernist, but they exclude so many skilled writers for this absolute tripe!

I shouldn’t complain, though. For studying, the Norton is amazing. It saves buying a whole bundle of poems and short stories, or else having to find them on-line. It does a very good job at bringing together the momentous pieces of the thirty years, along with some lesser known ones. Yes, it’s heavy and has a lot of works you’ll never look at in it. And yes, considering the copyright laws on the majority of texts in the anthology, it’s a bit expensive. But it could be a lot worse.