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The Norton Anthology of English Literature (two vols) - The Short Oxford History of English Literature
May 26, 2000

Joining the other monuments that mark the (debatable) arrival of a new century is the seventh edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature , with various additions, including a new stiffer cover and bolder typeface, Stephen Greenblatt as general editor, and Seamus Heaney's recent translation of Beowulf .

This last inclusion, which should prove a triumph for marketing the edition, is described in its publicity as "the jewel in the crown". The metaphor is appropriate, in that the new Norton seeks to radiate a monolithic majesty in its all-inclusiveness. For all these trappings, however, the continuing success of this anthology may be more indicative of wider trends in the study of English rather than a result of its own excellence.

For every edition, the Norton expands in response to teaching needs and changes of literary fashion and reputation. Yet it is obvious that the Norton does not always follow, but also initiates such needs, given that the internal formation of a canon is one of the side-effects of the enterprise. Thus we now have complete texts of Paradise Lost, Frankenstein, Endgame and Things Fall Apart , as well as many smaller additions, from George Gascoigne to Eavan Boland. With such expansion, the anthology promotes its increase as being almost exponential - if it is "literature" then it will end up in the Norton - eventually. Yet this is a necessary fiction on the part of both reader and anthologiser: unless the volumes assume the size of the libraries that they seek to shrink within their covers, then they remain an approximation of English literature, itself a contentious term.

To put this another way, the impression of growth and expansion remains in a new edition, but something has to go (and once gone, will not likely come back). The minutiae of such additions and omissions are not the point; what is important is that a large teaching anthology ties the teacher to its choices, and, more damagingly, does so to students as well, acting as the first introduction to authors who are not (and cannot be) represented in sufficient depth. This would not matter if such an introduction were followed by reference to more specialised texts. My own experience indicates otherwise, in that students get into the habit of using selections from the Norton as representative enough, preventing them from looking further.

This is not a specific charge against this edition, but a necessary facet of anthologies per se, with their problems of inclusion and representation. Many of the problems of the Norton as a teaching text spring from such partial representations: the virgin reader of Byron's Don Juan would find here a series of ellipses in place of many of the poem's most important supposed digressions. The enigmatic cynicism of Rochester is now represented grandly by two poems (one more than in the last edition). The gains of such inclusions as the engravings of Marriage-à-la-Mode are offset by the difficulty of teaching from the snippets that make up such thematic sections as "Voices of the War" or "The Rise and Fall of Empire", where the sparsity of material risks closing down debates into generalisation, rather than opening up and encouraging further study. Such thematic summarising is better illustrated by the accompanying selections of material on the anthology's website (www. wwnorton.com/nael).

Similarly, the brief headnotes to texts should act as introductory pieces, yet too often they become regurgitated in student essays as if they are final, incontestable truths. The introductions and notes are, according to the editors, "designed to give students the information needed, without imposing an interpretation".

The notes largely follow this salutary aim, yet, given the sort of reading culture that the reliance on an anthology produces, it is usual to see students conflate such necessary "information" as "interpretation", without reference to further, possibly dissenting ideas.

The new Norton supplies, packages and presents, often in exemplary fashion, an enormous amount of literature for a very accessible price. Whether the nature of such anthologies is related to the way in which students use them is highly debatable. If used properly, and in the way its editors intend, the seventh edition of the Norton would be an extremely useful teaching tool, giving the basics for reading and encouraging further study. More pragmatically, I fear, it will be often taken to be the beginning, middle and end of what a student needs to know - a selection of partial representations being more digestible (and less time-consuming) than the pursuit of anything more ambiguous.

One of the most welcoming features of Andrew Sanders's second edition of The Short Oxford History of English Literature is its refusal to try to flatten out ambiguities into a linear account of literary "progress". Such "progressive" histories have tended to be replaced, in a heterogeneous anthology and reference market, with deliberately ahistorical, encyclopedic accounts, where beginnings, middles and ends are rejected in favour of the idea that everything is "middle".

Sanders does not follow such a relativistic approach, but is hearteningly sceptical towards "proleptic historicism" that "determines that culture moves in ways which fit easily into progressive patterns". Instead we are offered readings and introductions that are neither judgemental in local detail, nor placed in relation to some larger master narrative - hence Sanders's dismissal, in his conclusion, of the list-making and ranking systems that dominate media approaches to literature at the end of the millennium.

As with the Norton , the inclusion and exclusion of material - and the terms with which it is described - will always be contentious, yet Sanders's acceptance of such limits to the project is clearly signposted. The revised final chapter, for example, is necessarily tentative about its selections of postwar literature. The result is an excellent introduction and reference tool for sixth-formers and undergraduates that is also capable of being used by that semi-mythical beast, the "common reader".

Adam Rounce is tutor in English, University of Bristol.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature (two vols): Seventh Edition

Editor - M. H. Abrams, Stephen Greenblatt et al
ISBN - (Vol 1) 0 393 97486 3 and 97487 1; (Vol 2) 0393 97490 1 and 97491 X
Publisher - Norton
Price - £29.95 (each) and £22.50 (each)
Pages - 2,974 and 2,963

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