Back on August 24, I reprinted Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Tonight I Am In Love,” because it blew the top of my head off when I read it the first time. It still does. I’m borrowing that expression from some anonymous someone from long ago, something I heard or read back I don’t remember when. The expression doesn’t appeal to me, mind you; it’s not me, and I’ve never understood why anyone would say such a thing–until I read Ms. Laux’s poem. Now I know why. It blew the top of my head off.
It is, in other words, an excellent poem. That was my only reason for posting it, and risking a violation of the “fair use” provisions of the Copyright Act in the process. I wanted other people to feel what I felt, or at least have the chance to. If I had been in Sherman Alexie’s shoes back in 2006 and this poem had been submitted to me blindly for Best American Poetry 2007, I’d have snapped it up immediately, no doubts, no hesitation.
“Excellence,” however, is not and has never been the sole criterion for putting together an anthology of literary works. If you’ve got that word Best in your title, you’re pretty much obligated to defend that superlative in your choices, no matter how deep into a corner the word Best may back you. Most anthologies these days, however, avoid the problem. The Norton Anthology Of American Literature makes no claim to be the “best” of anything, although the successive editions of the work do strive to include within two big volumes works that may surely be called excellent. The Norton‘s aims are, rather, to be comprehensive and representative of American literature. (The aims are the same in their anthologies of British, World, and Dramatic literature.)
I have no experience, myself, in being an anthology editor, but I knew Nina Baym, one of the editors of The Norton Anthology Of American Literature, back in 1986. She was my teacher in pedagogy during my doctoral years at Illinois, and she talked occasionally about the process of being an editor on such a large project, and about the hard choices that have to be made in choosing both authors and works.
You’d think that there’d be easy choices among the greatest writers, but there aren’t. Hawthorne has to be there, certainly, but what Hawthorne, something from The Scarlet Letter (maybe the whole thing if you have space for it or reprint rights to it), or “Rappacini’s Daughter”?
It gets tougher. If your task is to lay out the development of American Literature from its beginnings to the present day, that means you’re going to have to include some snippets at least from authors and works which are, frankly, dreadfully dull. Charles Brockton Brown’s eighteenth-century novel Arthur Mervyn usually appeals only to those who love the eighteenth century, but he has to be in an anthology of American Lit because he wrote very near the beginning of the whole enterprise and he was among the first to put his fictional characters within actual history within his novels. He did that for a nakedly political purpose: he wanted his readers to be socially and politically active in the new republic. I make this point because liberal academics get bashed every day for imposing a liberal viewpoint on their students. The reality is, those professors are not making this stuff up–the liberal view (however one defines it) has always been there in American and British literature, and it would be intellectually dishonest to say or teach otherwise. The conservative view of literature has also been there nearly from the outset, as exemplified by the McGuffey Readers of the early nineteenth century and Henry Norman Hudson’s expurgated and unexpurgated editions of Shakespeare for American classrooms.
The moderns don’t give you a break, either. Whom do you choose among women writers? Whose voice is most representative of a trend of thought that is prevalent in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century? Maybe that’s a better question to frame the problem than “Whose work matters most?” because, again, you’re not necessarily trying to give space to a writer whose works are going to be read anyway. You’re trying to show what’s going on in the literature of a period, and to give a voice back to those who may well have been silenced by the popular mood of the day. This is why a story like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is so valuable to us. Hawthorne dismissed his competitors as “a damned mob of scribbling women,” but some of those women, Gilman and Kate Chopin, in particular, were saying some important things and giving us all some profound and often shocking glimpses into the anxious, stressful inner lives of their contemporaries. Hawthorne could afford to dismiss them; we cannot.
What do you do, however, when you have two men who write well on the same subject? Take Norman Mailer and Phillip Roth. Mailer’s early novel, The Naked and the Dead, about World War II, is a great piece of work, but it’s a novel. Phillip Roth’s story “Defender of the Faith” also takes World War II as its subject and, in my opinion, is one of the finest short stories any American writer has ever written; but both writers cover the same ground. So what do you do? Do you take a snippet from Mailer’s novel, thereby distorting it slightly, and include Roth entire? Do you skip Roth and include a longer passage from The Naked and the Dead? Do you do as some anthologists do and take Roth’s story and something else entirely from Mailer, a cut from “Armies Of The Night,” perhaps? Such a cut may show Mailer’s skill as a non-fiction reporter, but it won’t show him as he principally is, like Roth, a novelist.
These, then, are the kinds of choices editors have to make, and I haven’t even touched upon the challenges of finding space to represent African-American, Asian, or Mexican-American writers. The best that an editor (or group of editors) can do is be clear to himself and others about the purposes of the collection and make choices that give those abstract purposes a discernible shape. It’s when our purposes and our biases remain hidden from others (or from ourselves) that we make choices we cannot easily defend, either to someone else or to our own conscience.