Historicizing american literature anthologies


National Narratives and the Politics of Inclusion: Historicizing American Literature Anthologies

pp. 227-254 Article

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Theorizing the Anthology

The anthology qua genus has remained relatively untheorized, a remarkable fact given the genre’s popularity and centrality in teaching U.S. literature. The discrepancy between the popularity of the form and the critical attention it receives suggests that anthologies are taken for granted as an unremarkable feature of the publishing world. Yet this “taken for grantedness” also masks their political and literary effects. Even though the key contributor to any anthology is the editor, for example, the role of anthology editors in general is hard to understand within traditional literary criticism since, as Leah Price (2000: 2) notes, an editor “cuts across the divisions of labor” that typically distinguish writer from reader, critic, and censor. The multiplicity of authors collected in an anthology competes with the editorial voice, and this tension often makes a collection hard to evaluate, especially since anthologies are typically received as simply collections of materials and earn less academic prestige than do individually authored books.

That the normative “American” literary voice in teaching anthologies might be gendered male and racialized white is by now a truism. The role of U.S. literature anthologies in maintaining this voice, however, is perhaps less obvious. Although national literature is now often mainstream literature, in the eighteenth century the idea of organizing a body of writing around the historical development of the nation was new, and the anthology was instrumental in this process. Early national anthologies challenged the prevailing canon — previously organized around classical traditions — in ways that anticipated the anthologization of minority literatures in the twentieth century. Early American literature anthologies opposed the European order just as contemporary multicultural anthologies challenge the exclusionary rubrics of nationally organized anthologies. Our essay examines the role of anthologies in the production of the American, and more recently multicultural, national narrative.1

As well as instantiating the differently valued arenas of editorship and authorship, anthologies also reflect and reinforce the parameters of participatory democracy, and as such shape the national narratives they claim to merely represent. Anthology criticism has noted this parallel since, as Price observes, most critics see the anthology not as a genre in its own right but as simply “a container for others” (3).2 Indeed, the defining characteristic of an anthology is its collection of materials (often excerpts) written by multiple authors and crafted into a larger whole by one or more editors. But since what an anthology omits is often as significant as what it includes, this collective voice can never hope to be fully representative. The paradox of the excerpt is that by hiding as much as it reveals, it is simultaneously representative and not representative of the larger narrative from which it comes.3 For this reason, the anthology has been an important genre for U.S. literatures because it allows for what Barbara Benedict (1996: 29) calls a “heteroglossia of diverse voices” to be published within a single text. As such, the anthology is a genre perfectly suited to representing a national literature emerging out of liberal democracy. Peter Burke (1992: 295) notes the importance of anthologies to the consolidation of nation-states in modern Europe, arguing that there are clear links between national anthologies and “the ‘mobilization,’ or even the ‘constitution’ of national identity.” He also notes that the materials collected did not always “originate” in the nation of which it was subsequently considered representative. The anthology, like the national canon more generally, attempts to represent a national literature but that representation is structured as much by its racialized and gendered absences as it is by its actual contents. In attempting to depict — through representative selections — a larger whole, the anthology functions in a rhetorical structure parallel to rights discourse. In other words, claims for inclusion after prior exclusion (in the democratic state, in the canon) are made simultaneously on the basis of a critique of the current configuration and a desire to be included in that configuration.

Representational exclusion has served as a basic organizing principle for American literature anthologies as much as it has…

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