«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
The ideological and pedagogical purposes of anthologies are controversial for academics, who may rely on anthologies for teaching purposes but who "disdain" them from a scholarly perspective, assuming that anthologies "eliminate the difficult or provocative" (Germano qtd. in Di Leo 7). In "Anthology Disdain," Jeffrey J. Williams details several motives of academics' "ambivalence" for anthologies, most of which turn on how academics construct their professional identity (207). Williams explains that anthologies represent commercial and pedagogical presences in academia, both of which academics "distance" themselves from in their "professional self-definition as researchers" (210). Academic ambivalence about the pedagogical utility of anthologies and their simultaneous lack of scholarly value affects not only academic audiences, but also the general public. For example, Sarah Boxer reports on the production and publication of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—which Williams helped edit—in her 2001 New York Times article "How Lit Crit Finally Won Out over Lit" (Boxer.) Boxer contextualizes basic information about critics who were included—and excluded—from the anthology with professors' views, quoting Williams as claiming "Nortons represent the Man... [they] are inferior goods... representing received opinions, simplifying complicated views, marshaling an individualistic hall of fame, usually of great men in a fraternity" (Williams qtd. in Boxer).
Such studies of anthologies have already been undertaken, for example, at a Modern Language Association panel in December 1996, some of the proceedings of which were published in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Focusing on Romantic Anthologies, the panel raised ethical questions, such as those posed by Duncan Wu: "should the anthologist provide teachers with texts of works already taught, or is it more properly their job to give teachers works that they (the anthologist) thinks should be taught?... is the teaching anthology the most appropriate vehicle for canon reform? Is it right to regard the classroom as the laboratory, and our students as the guinea-pigs, on which to try new canonical configurations and new critical ideologies?" (par. 4). Laura Mandell underscores the ethical "urgency" of Wu's questions, adding that even if "junior-college and adjunct faculty do have the time to re-educate themselves for teaching new materials" incorporated into revised anthologies, these educators "may find... an unconscious kind of canonizing that goes on in the classroom through sheer amount of knowledge about and comfort with teaching texts that one has oneself been taught in contradistinction to material that is new and strange" (par. 3). While Wu and Mandell focus on Romantic anthologies, their questions seem applicable for other kinds of literature and poetry anthologies.
The helpfulness of Dickinson's poems and works by other canonical poets to audiences coping with loss likewise affirms the urgency of Wu's question about whether or not it is ethical to try out "new canonical configurations" on students (par. 4). Would students lose some helpful strategies or equipments for living if the poetry canon was redefined through anthologies? An equally urgent question, however, is "Are students already missing out on helpful poems that are not included in the canon?" Students may indeed be missing out, as Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose indicate in their discussion of women readers' responses to a non-credit Women and Literature course in 1971 (38). Although the course began with a syllabus structured by the teacher, the women "took direction of their own reading and discussion" replacing male authors like Sinclair Lewis with women writers, including George Eliot, Maya Angelou, and Sylvia Plath, who spoke to their own experiences and provided "some insight into the forces that had shaped [their] lives" (Kaplan and Rose 38; Sass qtd. in Kaplan and Rose 39).
The women's preference for writers who spoke to their personal experiences suggests that they wanted to read literature that they could use as equipment for living. Because these women had "nearly always read men writers in high school and college," they felt that their education had failed to teach them about literature related to their own lives (Sass qtd. in Kaplan and Rose 39). Because these women's education failed to meet their needs, their experiences demonstrate the ethical urgency underscoring questions about what texts do—and do not—get included in anthologies.
On the other hand, there may also be some pedagogical benefits for continuing to teach texts with which teachers and even some students may already be familiar. When Mandell observes that familiarity with texts helps teachers teach, she implicitly invites us to consider that familiarity with texts may also help students learn (par. 3). Especially in the case of poetry, which can be a very intimidating genre for students, learning about poems with which they are already familiar may help ease their anxiety and feel more comfortable opening themselves up to new ideas. Students may become familiar with some short, canonical poems before they ever encounter an anthology in a college classroom.
For example, S. E. Hinton introduces young adult readers to Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" in The Outsiders, providing a narrative lens that facilitates teenage readers' understanding of the poem. The film adaptation of Hinton's book also includes Frost's poem and the teenage characters' discussion of it, exposing film audiences to the poem as well. Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess open their award-winning, illustrated novel Stardust: Being a Romance within the Realms of Faerie with John Donne's poem "A Song," thus introducing the poem to readers who may not know it or John Donne's work in general and reaffirming Donne's place in our cultural memory (5). Donne's poem is also indirectly promoted through the film adaptation of the novel. Although the film does not include the poem, viewers may be prompted by the film to read the novel and thus be introduced to Donne's poem that way. Such exposure to short, anthology poems through other literary and cinematic works may reduce students' anxiety about studying poetry in the classroom and/or perhaps inspire their curiosity about specific poems or the genre as a whole.
Clearly questions about what texts should be taught and included—or excluded—from anthologies are complicated. Their ethical implications, however, demand, as Wu emphasizes, that they be asked. Asking such questions about anthologies, though, may still not be enough. Because allusions to short, elegiac poetry in popular literature and film affirm the place that canonical poems and poets have in our cultural memory, these allusions also call for ethical and rhetorical examination. Such popular allusions situate elegiac poems alongside other cultural artifacts like public memorials. Reiterations of short, anthology poems increase their memorability and enhance their effectiveness at affirming community, making these poems especially useful as equipment for living, as Mell McDonnell expresses.
The community-affirming effects of these poems may appeal to non-academic readers' desire for community—a prominent motive among common readers, according to Kaplan and Rose's attempt to describe "The Common Reader Today." In addition to the example of the readers in the Women and Literature course, who "all felt a need...
to interact with other women," Kaplan and Rose cite the Vermont Reading Project, a reading group that brings common readers together with a humanities scholar, as a situation that "recreates a sense of community that often is lost" (Swenson qtd. in Kaplan and Rose 41). Common readers' desire "to be readers in common" may be heightened by encounters with loss, as the essays in Wider than the Sky suggest (Kaplan and Rose 42).
Yet this collection also suggests that readers' desire for community can be satisfied with short, anthology poems like Dickinson's. Like public memorials, these poems seem to fulfill an important function of epideictic rhetoric. Indeed, the apparent significance of these poems' rhetoric seems to call for further dialogue about their places in our classrooms, research, personal lives, and collective memory.
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