"The Norton Anthology of English Literature" celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Built to Last
By M. H. ABRAMS and STEPHEN GREENBLATT
Published: August 23, 2012
Fifty years ago this fall, undergraduates were assigned their first Norton Anthology, often the only required text for a college freshman’s survey of English literature. Here, M. H. Abrams, the founding general editor, and Stephen Greenblatt, the current general editor, discuss the history of the anthology, the challenges facing English literature survey courses and the enduring question, Why study literature?
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
How much has the anthology changed over the years?
M. H. Abrams: It’s gotten bigger. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to that. The important thing is that the student be able to carry it to class and read it anywhere, including under a tree as the original preface said. I think we still do say that.
Stephen Greenblatt: We still do indeed say that in your honor, even though I don’t know how many trees have been cut to make it possible.
Abrams: When I undertook the original job of general editor, I thought of it as the work of one clear summer. Well, it was four very hard-working years before the thing finally appeared. And it’s a difficult project. But it’s worthwhile because you’re presenting literature to students, many of them for the first time. And when you succeed you’ve done something very important and very satisfying.
Greenblatt: The anthology changes, but it is meant to last. Even now in its somewhat bulky form, people keep their Norton Anthology for their whole lives. And they do that for a reason. They do it because they sense that it’s not something that just comes and goes. They trust it and want to return to it. That’s something again that our culture has too little of and that the anthology has passionately served.
Abrams: One of the pleasures of being an editor of the anthology is to meet middle-aged people who say: “I still have the Norton Anthology that I used 20 years ago. I have it at my bed’s head, and I read it at night, and I enjoy it.” It’s a pleasure that you don’t outgrow the anthology. It’s oriented toward undergraduates, but it’s used by graduate students in preparing for their oral examinations. It continues to be read by people who were introduced to it 20, 25, 30 years ago in their classes. That’s a great joy for an editor.
The Norton Anthology plays a crucial role in a humanities curriculum that is said to be under great pressure. Have you noticed the effects of this pressure?
Greenblatt: Of course we have noticed. The issue is not so much the anthology, but rather the fate of the whole enterprise of studying what Matthew Arnold called the best which has been thought and said in the world. For generations that enterprise occupied a key place in college and university education everywhere, but there are signs that it is in trouble. Humanities departments are fretting about a decline in majors, and those students who do major in literature, art, philosophy and history often clamor only for contemporary topics.
Has the Norton Anthology then lost its relevance?
Greenblatt: Not at all. The Norton Anthology was based on the idea that it actually matters to plunge into a comic masterpiece written in the 1300s or to weep at a tragedy performed in the 1700s. What would it mean for a culture to give up on its past? It is vitally important to remind people that the humanities carry the experience, the life-forms of those who came before us, into the present and into the future. Through reading literature we can make ghosts speak to us, and we can speak back to them. Besides — as many studies have shown — cultural knowledge turns out to be good for your career.
You have noted a turn away from the past among students and their teachers. Are there signs of a counter-trend back toward the basics?
Greenblatt: When I teach a course with my colleague Louis Menand that starts with Homer and goes up to Joyce, the pressure on enrollment is huge, because it turns out many students — without the compulsion of their teachers — feel that they really shouldn’t go through their undergraduate years without reading the great imaginative works of the past.
Abrams: One of the joys of teaching with the anthology is to watch the excitement grow as students, who may think the past dull and irrelevant, find how fresh and new and powerful are the kinds of writings that are hundreds of years old.
Greenblatt: Amen to that.
What texts have been particularly painful to remove from the print edition.
Abrams: I love the Romantic period, and I developed a corpus of texts to be included, which I thought were indispensable. It turned out that there was not room for more than half of what I proposed. Every removal was like pulling a tooth. But I finally gave in to the common good.
Greenblatt: I love certain long Renaissance poems such as George Gascoigne’s “Woodmanship.” We included it; very few people taught it; so out it came. But my pain was alleviated because we now offer the poem in a fully annotated, completely teachable downloadable form in the supplemental e-book. The situation that Mike faced when he revised the anthology — when something comes out of the print pages, it ceases to circulate — is not the situation we’re in now. So we can make practical decisions as to what is most teachable and usable and at the same time not give up those things we feel passionately about but that may not be for everyone.
For a prospective undergraduate reading this Q. and A., how would you answer the question, Why study literature?
Abrams: Ha — Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life enjoyable. There’s no end to the response you can make to that question, but Stephen has a few things to add.
Greenblatt: Literature is the most astonishing technological means that humans have created, and now practiced for thousands of years, to capture experience. For me the thrill of literature involves entering into the life worlds of others. I’m from a particular, constricted place in time, and I suddenly am part of a huge world — other times, other places, other inner lives that I otherwise would have no access to.
Abrams: Yes. Literature makes life much more worth living.
Greenblatt: You speak with the full wisdom of your hundred years of life.
Abrams: That’s portentous enough.