July 16, 2012

Adam Kirsch talks to M.H. Abrams, one of the original editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature


High school English lit is a land ruled by anthologies, and one anthology in particular: the Norton Anthology of English Literature. This week in Tablet, Adam Kirsch has a long and interesting article about one of the original editors of the Norton Anthology, M.H. Abrams.

Born in 1912, Abrams was one of a generation of Jewish professors, critics, and scholars who came to prominence in the academy after the Second World War, and his lifelong study was the Romantic poets, not an obvious choice in the days of New Criticism. Abrams taught at Cornell for many years, where his students included Harold Bloom and Thomas Pynchon. He’s the author of two classic books about the Romantic movement, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953), ranked as #25 on the Modern Library list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century, and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971).

Kirsch interviewed Abrams, who is about to celebrate his 100th birthday on July 23rd, and asked him about the Norton Anthology:

Last month, when I visited Prof. Abrams—“Mike” to his friends—at his cheery, sunlit home in a retirement community a few minutes from the Cornell campus, I had the chance to ask him about the creation of the anthology, which for millions of students over the last 50 years simply was English literature. This was not, Abrams assured me, the intention of himself and his six co-editors when they first conceived of the book. “I never thought of establishing the English canon,” he said. “It was the farthest thing from my mind.”

Abrams also credits part of the success of the book to its design: “Printed on thin Bible paper and in a single-column format, it could compress a large amount of material into a readable and portable volume.”

With that, the thin pages of my high school Norton Anthology suddenly came back to me in a rush—you had to be careful not to tear them, erasing was tricky, and if you made a lot of notes in pen around a Matthew Arnold poem on one side of a page, the other side of the page was more or less ruined for note-taking and sometimes for reading. But it’s an ingenious solution to the problem of fitting a huge number of pages in one binding, even a doorstopper paperback like the NA. And the delicacy of the pages made the whole experience a little tense and elevated.

The anthology promised many things: one of them was that if you didn’t like one set of poems, you might like another just two pages away, and if you didn’t like a whole period, there were many others at hand, up or down the textblock an inch. There were wastes in there that we never touched in class and that I went into on my own: I seem to remember the entire Beowulf being included and vivid, stark, early English poems like “The Twa Corbies.” I memorized most of Browning’s “To My Last Duchess” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” parts here of Gerard Manley Hopkins and A. E. Housman, but also Berryman and Corso (“Should I get married? Should I be good? Astound the girl next door with velvet suit and Faustus hood?”).

The objection to anthologies has always been about what they leave out, and it’s true, they leave so much out—they leave writers (and sometimes whole periods) whose worth isn’t recognized at the time the anthology is put together, and they also leave out other work by the writers included, work that isn’t as well-known, that doesn’t fit in with ideas about what that writer’s style or significance is. They are a pupal literary format that students graduate from, into the Collected Works and the Complete Poems, though I think the editors of anthologies, on the other end, often enjoy putting them together. But it’s hard to shake that attachment, the fondness I still feel for something that I know is incomplete.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.