When I began the project that led to developing The Heath Anthology of American Literature, it seemed to me that an anthology was, at best, a necessary evil. I remembered e.e. cummings' nasty little slam at anthologists, particularly Louis Untermeyer, who "sold the many on the few/ not excluding mr. u." But xeroxing had become too expensive (as well, often, as illegal), students had less money to buy whole books, not to speak of less inclination to read them. "So the anthology was making a comeback," I remember grumbling, "well, we'll have to make the best of it."
But some of the contents of this issue of the Newsletter have helped me to rethink that snobby position, which, I discovered, continued to lurk in regions of my cultural unconscious. The approaches to early American texts so usefully developed by Carla Mulford simply could not be carried out without a rich, diverse collection of works. Nor, in fact, could the kind of electronic discussion group launched by Randy Bass, with its striking possibilities for bringing together a literally infinite variety of authors, texts, syllabi, pedagogies--and teachers. It suddenly occurred to me--slow to learn--that in creating The Heath Anthology we had not provided a kind of substitute for the "real" books students ought to be studying but an altogether different resource, as valid as the set of paperbacks we once sanctified in our reading lists.
Those who have come through the educational system more recently than I may not have shared that initial prejudice against anthologies. Perhaps. But they will surely have heard it from some of their colleagues, especially in the kind of condescension shown to mere "textbooks" (not to speak of textbook publishers). Moreover, it remains the case--especially in curricula that continue to emphasize "major" figures, even if these are now somewhat diversified in terms of gender and race--that certain forms of pedagogy and of organizing courses deeply embody such assumptions. It seems to me that we have only begun the process of rethinking organization and syllabi in light of the new kind of resource that an anthology like the Heath provides.
In Canons and Contexts I wrote about the usefulness of a "comparative" approach to the study of the cultures of the United States, and I have tried to implement that strategy both in courses that use the anthology and in others that use a number of longer texts. But I hadn't sufficiently considered, I think, how such comparative study is in many respects rooted in the rich soil of a large, diverse anthology. Moreover, such a comparative approach is, I am clear, only one among a number of fundamental pedagogical strategies generated by the anthology, provided that we see it as a different and not a lesser way of furnishing students with literary texts.
Carla Mulford's ways of thinking about early American literatures are by themselves quite provocative; T-AMLIT is, by itself, a challenging new system of support and development that we are just learning to use. But both, it seems to me, also provoke a different kind of summons: that is, to rethink more thoroughly and freely how our courses can best be taught when their primary resource is, and probably ought to be, a literary anthology.