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Editing Student Anthologies: The Burning Question[Notice]

  • Duncan Wu

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  • Duncan Wu
    University of Glasgow

The following essay was delivered at the MLA convention in Washington D.C. in December 1996 at a panel on the subject, 'Anthologizing Romantic-Era Writing: Shaping the Canon for the Commercial Marketplace'. It was chaired by Susan Wolfson, and the other participants were Jack Stillinger, Richard Matlack, Peter Manning, and Anne K. Mellor. The background to the paper is the publication of a number of teaching anthologies of the Romantic period in recent years, including my own Romanticism: An Anthology. The title of this session is, especially for the literary scholar, particularly salutary. Scholars haven't traditionally need to think about the commercial marketplace, and there remains the suspicion that it's improper for them to do so. You have to remind yourself that teaching texts, arguably the most commercial manifestation of academic work, have been with us for centuries. At school, Wordsworth and Coleridge read Vicesimus Knox's enormously popular Elegant Extracts in Prose and Verse, the Norton anthology of its day. What makes the present situation distinct from any in the past is the peculiar way in which, in the last few years, anthologies have become a principal means of canon reform. Of course, they have always been one means of questioning or revising, however lightly, the existing canon. One thinks of the appearance of Wordsworth's The Ruined Cottage (MS D) in the Oxford anthology in 1973, or that of the Two-Part Prelude some years ago in the Norton. But these were comparatively minor innovations. The discovery - or, in some cases, rediscovery - of the work of women writers, combined with a shift in the importance granted the work of philosophical and political writers, has generated an imperative for canon reform that is focussed on teaching anthologies. All of which begs, it seems to me, a vitally important question yet to be answered - or, in fact, asked: should the anthologist provide teachers with texts of works already taught, or is it more properly their job to give teachers works that they (the anthologist) thinks should be taught? Put another way, is the teaching anthology the most appropriate vehicle for canon reform? Is it right to regard the classroom as the laboratory, and our students as the guinea-pigs, on which to try new canonical configurations and new critical ideologies? I don't think, incidentally, that there's a yes or no answer to this question - all I'm saying is that I find myself faintly perturbed by the fact that no one has yet seen fit to ask it, let alone provide an answer. All the more odd, it seems to me, because in one way or another it must be one of the most urgent questions confronting the academic world today. Perhaps it is in the interests of publishers, who care only about profits, to discourage such enquiry; it is hardly in either our interests or that of our students to ignore it. One related factor makes this question all the more important. Publishers have not been slow to recognize that the demand for teaching texts that reflect current critical trends has opened a gap in the market. Traditionally scholars have taken their projects to publishers; in this case, the plethora of new teaching anthologies is market-led. Publishers have seized an opportunity to take custom away from market leaders like Norton. And taking custom away from someone else is what this pastime is all about - at least from the publisher's point of view. In the case of Harcourt Brace they have decided to forestall competition from other publishers by competing with themselves. Alongside David Perkins' excellent …

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