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Anthologizing Romantic-Era Writing For the Commercial Market: An Introduction to a Public Discussion

  • Susan Wolfson

…plus d’informations

  • Susan Wolfson
    Princeton University

Corps de l’article

With the following remarks, I introduced a panel that I chaired at MLA in December, 1996, "Anthologizing Romantic-Era Writing: Shaping the Canon for the Commercial Marketplace."

The reconfiguration of the field formerly known as Romanticism has been developing since the advent of new-historicist and feminist criticism in the 1980s, with flourishing results in the 1990s. Some of this interest is being met by on-line resources, and some by new anthologies for the classroom—notably Duncan Wu's Romanticism, An Anthology, Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's British Literature: 1780-1830, and the forthcoming "Romantics and their Contemporaries" section, edited by myself and Peter Manning for Longman's Anthology of British Literature. There have also been revisions to the contents of established presences—in particular the Norton whose Romanticism section is edited by Jack Stillinger, and the classroom giant for decades, David Perkin's English Romantic Writers. You can see the Tables of Contents of the new collections, including Jerome McGann's Romantic Period Verse.

Let me briefly sketch in the background of our present moment, with some attention to the most salient feature of the new anthologies, though not the only one: the inclusion of writing by women. Russell Noyes's once standard English Romantic Poetry and Prose (1956; first edition) had a very wide span, beginning with Thomson's Seasons (1725 or so) and ending with poems written in the 1840s, but also a narrow representation of women: Wollstonecraft got 10 pages out of 1300, Wordsworth 9, Radcliffe 6. The anthologies of the 1950s and 60s tightened the period borders and curtailed even this small number of women. The first edition of the Norton defined "The Romantic Period" as 1798-1832, taking the publication of Lyrical Ballads and the passage of the Reform Bill as border-markers; the featured writers were the Big Six plus Burns. From the 1960s to about 1990, the terrain of "Romanticism" remained mostly unchanged, defined for survey courses by the Norton and for period courses by David Perkins's English Romantic Writers. With their generously represented, generously annotated canon of mostly male writers, these anthologies guided the education of most of the tenured faculty in our field.

In the mid-1990s, noticeable changes began to appear, ranging from friendly amendments and revisions to outright challenges and interventions. If we check the Norton, we get an apt enough indication: in the 6th edition of 1993, "The Romantic Period" moved the early end back to 1785, acknowledging the relation of Romanticism to the Revolutionary period, and three women appear among the featured writers: Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, and Shelley. In 1995, Perkins, with an ironic sense that new Romanticism was actually more truly retro (that is, going back to the pre-war days when wide reading in the field was the norm and when historical contextualizing was the dominant mode of study) introduced a second, expanded edition of his highly regarded English Romantic Writers. He kept his period reined in to 1798-1832 and added several women writers. Perkins already had revisionary company—especially editors unencumbered by heritages (or entailments) from decades of success with a standard classroom product. In 1994, Duncan Wu's Romantcism, An Anthology cast a very wide net across these decades, bringing in many unanthologized writers, including many women. With the exception of some key texts—for example, the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, the 1805 Prelude, and Don Juan I—Wu opted for breadth of representation. And with an eye to issues rather than dates, Wu offers as his earliest text Burke's Sublime and Beautiful, and, his latest, Mill's Autobiography. Just in advance of Wu, in 1993, McGann issued another experimental anthology, Romantic Period Verse, strategically limiting his selections to poetry and to the years 1785-1832, beginning with Ann Yearsley and Robert Merry and ending with Tennyson's 1832 poems. He also polemically limited his contents to actual publications, thus excluding, for instance, The Prelude and The Fall of Hyperion.

Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak's British Literature: 1780-1830, conspicuously omitting the R-word from its title, boldly announces itself as "the first anthology of the 'Romantic' Period to take into account the major role that women played in the production of literature at this time, as well as the wide range of social and political debates to which both canonical and noncanonical writers responded." It opens with a section of six "Historical and Cultural Contexts." Of about 60 writers in their table of contents, almost half, 25, are women, whose writing occupies almost half their pages. Trade-offs are inevitable, and what some may miss are fuller representation of The Prelude, Shelley's Epipsychidion, Keats's early poetry, including Endymion (or later, Isabella).

The presentation of socio-historical contexts and a similar range of writers is also the goal of David Damrosch's editorship of the Longman's Anthology for which I and Peter Manning are editing a 1000-page section on "the Romantics and their Contemporary Writers"; in deference to market research we accepted the R-word, but won freedom from having to declare temporal boundaries. Like Mellor and Matlak, we have several "Contexts" and a good representation of women's writing. Recognizing the importance of fiction as a genre in which women writers achieved considerable success, Mellor and Matlak offer all of Austen's Lady Susan, Wolfson and Manning all of Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein.

Over the past year our cyber-bulletin-board (run by the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism) has been buzzing with enthusiasm, complaints, or qualified admiration for anthologies past, present, and to come, but this discussion has not (yet) touched base with the contingencies of commercial publishing: the willingness of publishers to take risks in realtion to (sometimes against) what market research advises, the information of market research (what teachers do teach, want to teach), the rising costs of publication, the challenge of marketing a two-hundred-year-old period of writing, only a dozen or so of whose authors are well known even in the general academic culture.

All these anthologies are animated by and emerge from a lively (often strenuously negotiated) combination of critical authority, professional service, pedagogical intervention, and publishers' interests, which run the range from practical caution, to savvy enterprise, to optimistic risk-taking. At this critical point in academic culture, when the subject of "British" Literature is being challenged by multiculturalism, when literary study itself is being challenged by genres not traditionally regarded as "literary," and when hard-copy books are being challenged and supplemented by on-line resources, our gathering of editors promises a vital discussion, of interest not only to our colleagues in the Romantic division but also to those who teach Romantic-era writing in survey courses or who are addressing issues of anthologizing in other periods.

Each editor will speak for about four to five minutes on some aspect of the practical business of developing the anthology—principles of selection, inclusion and omission, quantity versus length of selections, principles of organization (by author, by date, by subject)—or how its resources might be used in the classroom. Our panelists will discuss these concerns and how they have affected their decisions in representing Romantic-era writing. We will then open up our discussion—first among the panelists, and then to the audience. I think our panelists will be known to most of you, but let me offer some quick introductions:

  • Jack Stillinger from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana has a distinguished career editing Romantic-era writers (Keats, Coleridge, Mill) and is the period editor for The Norton Anthology.

  • Duncan Wu, from the University of Edinburgh, is the editor of Romanticism, An Anthology and of a companion volume of critical essays. He is developing a second edition of this, as well as an anthology of Romantic Women Writers, and is developing a CD-ROM—offering fuller texts, more texts, and supplementary documents and materials.

  • Anne Mellor from UCLA and Richard Matlak from Holy Cross are coeditors of British Literature: 1780-1830—and both are very active in our profession as teachers and critics.

  • I am Susan Wolfson (from Princeton). Peter Manning of USC and I are the coeditors of "The Romantics and their Contemporaries" for The Longman's Anthology. Both of us have written extensively on a variety of issues and writers in the Romantic era and have been editing a series of volumes for Penguin's English Poet Series.

After my remarks, Peter Manning treated briefly:

  1. The need in a literature course to emphasize literary issues in the non-literary materials—the use of characterization, the development of exemplary narratives, the dominant metaphor systems and their ideological implications.

  2. The need to relate unfamiliar writers and non-literary texts to works in the "traditional canon." The example of Wordsworth's books on the French Revolution in The Prelude and Helen Maria Williams's Letters from France (beginning with her accounts of the Terror).