2:06 PM 5/14/98
In late December at the Modern Language Association meeting in Washington, D. C., the long-awaited Heath Anthology of American Literature was proudly launched and immediately became one of the meeting's "events." Fighting bindery problems, weather complications, and even last-minute changes in text selections to accommodate the size restrictions, the Heath manufacturing department gamely brought in the book the evening before the convention opened.
In addition to all of the pre-publication promotion and the profession's general awareness of the new text's background, provenance, and content, yet another forum was available in which the importance of this publication was discussed. In a session arranged by the MLA's American Literature Section, entitled "American Literary Scholarship and Criticism since World War II," and presided over by J. A. Leo Lemay of the University of Delaware, Newark, a number of well-known scholars talked about what they believed to be "the most significant criticism and scholarship on American literature" over the last 45 years. Professor James M. Cox of Dartmouth College described what were, in his opinion, some central critical works surveying the field of American literature, giving special acknowledgement to Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). Joel Myerson of the University of South Carolina talked about major advances in textual and bibliographical scholarship, citing the development of the CEAA editions of major authors to be an extremely valuable contribution to the field. The third speaker, Professor Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University and Associate Editor of American Literature (the journal) began her presentation with what she termed "the answer" to the large question the panel had before it. She began, "The answer is: The D. C. Heath Anthology of American Literature."
Professor Davidson admitted that it is unusual to talk about an anthology as a "major contribution to scholarship." However, if an anthology can be said to be "the institutionalization of a critical moment" in the way that the "notorious" Eight American Writers anthology was a response to The New Criticism's quest for a "sacrosanct, definitive, and limited canon," so The Heath Anthology in content, in presentation, and in the collectivity of its production, having involved hundreds and hundreds of scholars over the course of its development, is the institutionalization of this critical moment. She argued that in rendering as pedagogy the movement in criticism and scholarship that had been most significant since World War II, The Heath Anthology "is a symbol, a symbol of both product and process in the remaking of American literature for present and future generations." The anthology, she argued, "represents the most creative thinking on canon-revision, multi-culturalism, and the re-valuation of different modes of literary work all rolled into one textbook. Because its target is the survey classroom, it could well be the single most significant shaper of critical thinking as well as practice for the next decade."
Elaborating on this position, Professor Davidson went on to list four ways in which the anthology makes its contribution. First, she said, the book is "inconvenient," its very size militating against any reductive notion of American literature being summed up in a few themes or broad issues.
Secondly, the text is "excessive." Though its inclusiveness makes available to students a new syllabus, it also forces choices upon professors. While most instructors will always be able to find some fault with almost any anthology, with what is included as well as what is left out, this text, Professor Davidson stressed, allows the profession new choices in creating its own textbook. And though the text has enough of the traditional material to provide ample scope for a very traditional course, "standard texts come surrounded by both other texts and critical apparati that resonate with and inevitably challenge the perceptions one might have of even the writers we think we know best."
The third pedagogical contribution the text makes is that it is "chaotic," in that "no univocal, totalized `America'" rings out from every page nor any privileged notion of a single tradition. Quoting Houston Baker, Professor Davidson said the anthology can "release us from a tyranny of conceptual overdeterminations," and show that American literature exists in many geographical regions, historical eras, and expressive modes.
The last salient educational virtue of the text and perhaps the most significant, she said, is that the book is "ornery," even "impudent," calculated to make the seasoned American literary scholar feel ill-educated, perplexed, uncertain, insecure. . .," the kind of book that shakes one's self-confidence, that threatens one's authority in the classroom, that makes one feel like a student again. . . .
The audience both at this session and throughout the convention's duration was anxious to learn more about the Heath Anthology. Traffic at the exhibit booth was extremely heavy, and several hundred copies of the text were given away. Time and again the booth became the site for a pedagogical and critical discussion of the texts, what was in, what was out, who participated in the selection process--all of these issues were discussed at great length. But one thing appears certain: this is a text whose time has come, representing a clear alternative to all other existing American literature anthologies. In this time of revision of curricula, of the canon, of teaching practices, and of critical methods, the words of one professor who dropped by the booth ring out loud and clear for the value of such change. "Congratulations," she said to one of our editors, "I just threw out my last Norton anthology."