The Bible of US literature

The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Fifth Edition (two volumes)
May 28, 1999

The Norton Anthology has now attained the status of an institution in literary studies. The reader expects authority, attention to detail and clarity in the presentation. Such a massive canonical enterprise, attempting to give a representative and comprehensive body of texts from such magnitude and diversity, is so ambitious that omissions and limitations are to be expected. Yet the team of editors, under the supervision of Nina Baym, has updated and enriched the experience of meeting and responding to these writings for students and teachers.

The scholarly background notes are exemplary, supplying essential biography, discussions of form, and even summaries of complementary philosophical or thematic material. For seminars, the footnotes are particularly welcome. As usual with Norton anthologies, the only difficulty in using the books for teaching, is the sheer size and weight. The paper is extremely thin and the books sometimes hard to handle. But all this can be overlooked for the sake of having all this material in two paperback volumes.

The format of selected texts in full, with substantial extracts from most other central works in the major categories and genres, is better than ever, with the inclusion of some native American trickster tales, and more ample additions to modern poetry and prose. The large volumes aim to provide a basic collection of important writing with explanatory notes, appealing to undergraduates primarily, but also providing a massive resource for researchers in American studies.

As Baym stresses in the preface, there are three main aims here. The books offer a resource for the planning of courses; they are self-sufficient in that the texts constitute the basis of several courses at all levels in themselves, and also "to balance traditional interests with developing critical concerns". The last point is particularly relevant to those involved in the teaching and dissemination of American literature. Recent cases of neglect such as some of the American Jewish fiction writers and some writers of experimental fiction illustrate this. A case could be made for their substantial inclusion, but then other lobbies are added, and the result is a need for a thoughtful, selective proportion of work. The only additional feature which may develop is the use of a CD-Rom companion, as in the equivalent volume on black American literature. Some of the broader reference could be in this form rather than in the text.

Such a massive undertaking cannot please everyone, and the editorial team, together with their advisers, are to be commended on this satisfying blend of established "classic" works alongside writers who have been reconsidered after critical revisions from the academy.

Stephen Wade is senior lecturer in English, University of Huddersfield.

The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Fifth Edition (two volumes)

Editor - Nina Baym
ISBN - 0 393 95871 X and 95872 X
Publisher - Norton
Price - £19.95 each
Pages - 2,611 and 1,918

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