Thursday, May 7, 2015

Anthologies and the Literary Canon

During my recent conversation with Dr. Keith Clark, he spoke about his first encounters with the works of Ernest J. Gaines. He first encountered Gaines, as I am sure many did, when he saw the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman on CBS in 1974. He next encounter did not occur until he was working on his M.A. in the mid-eighties. As a graduate assistant, he taught an undergraduate course in African American literature using Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon's Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology (1972). Dr. Clark's anecdote made me start thinking about the construction of the literary canon and as a result the construction of literary anthologies again.



According to M.H. Abrams, "literary canon" refers to "those authors who, by cumulative consensus of critics, scholars, and teachers, have come to be widely recognized as 'major,' and to have written works often hailed as literary classics. The literary works by canonical authors are the ones which, at a given time, are most kept in print, most frequently and fully discussed by literary critics and historians, and most likely to be included in anthologies and in the syllabi of college courses" (29). Literary anthologies contribute to the construction of the "literary canon," and in closely tied to that role of canon formation is assisting teachers in general survey courses in covering wide swaths of literary expanses during the course of an academic semester or year. For example, when I teach Early American Literature, we begin in the 1400s and conclude in 1865. That is 400+ years of material. Anthologies help to parse the material out, in various ways, providing opportunities for me to introduce students to a wide array of authors and texts.


Barksdale and Kinnamon's anthology appeared about twenty five years before Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay's Norton Anthology of African American Literature in 1996, whose third edition just came out in 2014. Black Writers of American contains six parts (The Eighteenth-Century Begins, The Struggle Against Slavery and Racism: 100-1860, The Black Man in the Civil War: 1861-1865, Reconstruction and Reaction: 1865-1915, Renaissance and Radicalism: 1915-1945, and The Present Generation: Since 1945) Each part is then broken up into various sections, beginning with "The Major Writers." The other sections vary depending on the time period. One glance at the table of contents and you will notice some omissions that appear in later anthologies and some names that may be unfamiliar. For example, the only female major writer is Phillis Wheatley and female authors such as Pauline Hopkins, Harriett Jacobs, Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmond Fauset, Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, and others do not appear in the anthology. There are a couple of reasons for this. Gates didn't rediscover Wilson's Our Nig until 1982 and Jacob's narrative was thought, for the longest time, to be a piece of fiction written by Lydia Maria Child. Jean Fagan Yellin didn't clear up the issue until the early 1980s. Along with these issues, the questions surrounding what constitutes "classic" inevitably come into play.

In The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction, Darryl Dickson-Carr incorporates an entry on "canon formation." There, he speaks about the various factors that led, for one, to the creation of an African American "literary canon" and also to the reasons why authors like as those mentioned above did not necessarily appear in early anthologies. He notes, "In recent decades, as scholarly definitions of 'classic' or merely great literature have opened up to be more inclusive, with women and people of color being the main--and intentional--beneficiaries, this process has become even more difficult, as critics and scholars have collectively struggled to expand different canons while not completely disregarding their mainstays" (72). The "Culture Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s opened up the door for more women of color in the "literary canon," and as a result, Wilson, Jacobs, Hopkins, Larsen, Fauset, and others appear in both the Norton and in Call and Response along with other women who are not found in Black Writers of America.

When a new author enters the canon, another author leaves. As such, there are authors that appear in anthologies such as Cavalcade and Black American Literature, both from the early 1970s, that do not appear in contemporary anthologies. Glancing through the anthologies from the early 1970s, I noticed that authors such as John Marrant, John Russwurm, and Albery Allson Whitman fell out of the canon (if we use anthologies as our measuring stick). As well, twentieth century writers such as Arna Bontemps, Ossie Davis, and William Melvin Kelley do not appear in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Time and literary canons change; they do not remain constant because of the varying influences and movements that occur in our cultural milieu. As such, some authors become forgotten, or pushed to the side for a few years, while others get discovered and explored in more detail.

This post could continue, with me arguing for or against certain selections in anthologies; however, that post would prove fruitless. Instead, I just wanted to spend a little time pointing out that what we consider good literature owes something, good or bad, to the existence of literary anthologies. To see the table of contents for the Norton Anthology of African American Literature click the link here. I am glad they added "Theresa--A Haytian Tale" from Freedom's Journal. It is, to my knowledge, the first short story by an African American author.  

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Seventh Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999. Print.
Dickson-Carr, Darryl. The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print. 

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