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Canons Die Hard: A Review of the New Romantic Anthologies[Notice]

  • Laura Mandell

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  • Laura Mandell
    Miami University of Ohio

Recently, the field of Romantic Studies has witnessed an explosion of new anthologies making noncanonical texts available more widely. In my view, to be substantiated below, we are not witnessing the opening up of the canon despite these innovations. In some cases, the canon is maintained by unconscious kinds of canonizing, attributable to the desires of the particular editor. Thus the sixth edition of the Norton Anthology proudly tells us that "we have continued to increase the number of women writers, as well as to enlarge the selections by some of the women included in earlier editions." But notice the hierarchizing, conscious or not, on the part of the editors at the moment in the Preface when they describe specifically what has been added to The Romantic Period section of the text: There is a distinction in this paragraph between who is "incomparable" and who not, between those for whom every word deserves attention and those for whom being included is enough. The revolutionary potential of the editors' decision to re-edit the collection so that "forty female authors [now are] represented in the two volumes" of the Norton (xxxvi) is effaced by the manner in which these women have been added: they have not been added to the main section which is called "The Romantic Period" and in which Wordsworth and Coleridge appear. Instead, they appear in a separate section entitled "Romantic Lyric Poets." This heading is used in lieu of either "Other Romantic Poets," as appears in Bloom and Trilling's 1973 Oxford collection, or "Minor Writings" as appears in the 1938 McIntyre and Ewing edition of Romantic prose. That the heading is simply a replacement for "minor" or "other" is obvious because of the word "lyric": Wordsworth and Coleridge weren't lyric poets??? Canons die hard: they are everywhere maintained despite what at least appears to be the disappearance of those economic conditions insisting upon their maintenance. Because people can produce almost whatever they wish on a web page, the Internet eliminates the demand for publishing only canonical writers whom consumers will recognize and buy. But Michael Gamer has noticed that the Romantic texts most reproduced on the Internet are canonical ones. Perhaps there are larger economic conditions determining the longevity of the canon. As part of the conditions of their employment, college teachers do not have the time to learn about new texts well enough to teach them. My own department has given course relief to professors wishing to change their survey courses, but my university counts as one of the 250 research universities out of "3,595 universities, colleges, and specialized institutions" in the U.S. of which 61% are junior colleges. Thus the editors of the Norton say, defensively but justifiably, This claim gives urgency to Duncan Wu's question, posed in his essay here, as to whether contemporary anthologists should be giving teachers what they want or prescribing texts to be taught based on some other principles. But even if junior-college and adjunct faculty do have the time to re-educate themselves for teaching new materials, they may find, as I have, an unconscious kind of canonizing that goes on in the classroom through sheer amount of knowledge about and comfort with teaching texts that one has oneself been taught in contradistinction to material that is new and strange. From what is happening on the Internet and in classrooms, it is tempting to conclude about the history of canon formation what Carla Hesse concludes about the "history of modern libraries": these histories "[have] been shaped more by the history of our democratic [and disciplinary] ideals than by the history of …

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