Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Yes, injured woman! Rise, assert thy right! - poetry as long-lasting soap bubble

Professor Myers is investigating one of the canonical mechanisms I hid in the background yesterday:  who do researchers in English departments actually research?*  He popped names of U.S. writers into the MLA International Bibliography and counted up the results, comparing two periods, 1947 to the present and 1987 to the present.  Anti-canon radicals will be disappointed to see that much business is operating as usual:  Hank James, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Herman Melville – y’all aren’t tired of those fellas yet?

The "professional commitment" of scholars has grown most rapidly for Toni Morrison, but also for Vladimir Nabokov, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton.  By this measure, feminist critics are doing well, but rarefied aesthetes are still doing all right, too, thank goodness.

Are scholars – and teachers, since I have no doubt that this ranking would be reflected in the undergraduate classroom – creating the canon here, or maintaining it?  As I wrote yesterday, I typically assume the latter, but Myers also presents a book, Kate Chopin’s 1899 The Awakening, that was clearly taken up by scholars first, not artists.  I was assigned the novel twice as an undergraduate, in 1988 and 1991, which I now see was right at the beginning of the Chopin boom.  Chopin has proved useful to feminist critics, but for the book to survive, to be canonical, it will have to be taken up by writers.  My guess is that it has been or will be – the novel is narrow but aesthetically complex, and it has certainly been assigned to enough young writers.

Who is moving in the other direction, being pushed toward the canonical exit?  In front of me is my battered, even ravaged Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2, Fifth Edition (1986), 2,578 pages, and a near-mint Seventh Edition (2000), 2,963 pages, and bigger pages, too.  Anthologists face the most basic canonical problem:  even with 3,000 pages, not everything fits.

I think of canon-building as a slow, slow process; 14 years is nothing.  The enormous Victorian section, for example, is barely touched.  The unsettled 20th century is rearranged a bit, as I would expect.  The novelties are in Romantic poetry.  The Fifth Edition began with 70 pages of William Blake, followed by Robert Burns and Mary Wollstonecraft.  Now Blake is preceded by Anna Letitia Barbauld and Charlotte Smith, and followed by Mary Robinson (all poets).  How did the editors find room for them (and also Joanna Baillie, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon)?

Three writers got the boot, all associated with Percy Shelley:  Thomas Love Peacock, George Darley and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  As a result of my week-long exploration of the works of Peacock, he has surely been reinstated to the next edition, so that leaves Darley and Beddoes.  Beddoes is actually a favorite of mine, one of the weirdest weirdos of the 19th century, and Darley is a marvel, but I do wonder what professors ever did with them in a survey class.

Honestly, however good he is, George Darley was doomed.  Someone was going to replace him.  He is not of our moment.  Someday, someone else – no idea who – will replace some, but not all, of those women poets – no idea which ones.

My vote is to nix this terrible Anna Letitia Barbauld poem, written “ca. 1792-95,” which is as bad as John Greenleaf Whittier:

The Rights of Woman
Yes, injured woman! rise, assert thy right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest;
O born to rule in partial Law’s despite,
Resume they native empire o’er the breast!

It gets worse after that.  But definitely keep her “Washing-Day” (1797), which is about a child’s view of chores, and ends on just the note I want for this post:

Sometime through hollow bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles; little dreaming then
To see, Montgolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds – so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air , and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them – this most of all.

*  Be sure to attribute Myers’s work to the MLA – he loves that.


  1. The Barbauld "Rights of Woman" is a very useful poem to put in conversation with Wollstonecraft and Hannah More. It's an example of the Jacobin movement in Britain, which is interesting for all the cool France/England contrasts that can be made. I agree that aesthetically it's not particularly interesting, but Barbauld, as an early influence on Wordsworth, is a worthy inclusion in Norton.

    But this coming from a cranky Romanticist. The canon-'tis a complex and interesting conversation.

  2. I had a line about assuming the classroom profs knew what they were doing, but I guess I axed it. What you are saying is an example what I meant. Teachers are doing many things in a classroom; that's what these big anthologies are for.

    Still, "aesthically it's not particularly interesting" is diplomatic! The poem takes a curious turn at the end, doesn't it?

    Hannah More is not in the 7th ed., but she is in the 9th (table of contents, pdf). I can see why you're cranky: the Victorian section is amazingly stable, while the Romantic section from edition to edition is chaos. This is a good kind of cranky, I assume - exciting times for Romanticists.

  3. One of my vices is collecting old editions of the card game "Authors"; there's much cultural history in the changing graphics and canon. Shakespeare and Dickens are keepers; others come and go. Holmes, Lowell, and Howells are phased out; others pop up and disappear (Cornelia Meigs, George Bancroft...)

  4. Did you just criticize Whittier? Author of "Ode to Pumpkin Pie"? Are you sure you're "American"?!

    Yes, we are doing many things in a classroom. Still, as time goes on I get less patient with doing them by way of things that aren't aesthetically interesting. It's always a tension. One of the best things to do is try to generate some conversation about that problem with the students. They can't always tell the difference, though.

    I too was assigned the 5th edition Norton for my undergrad survey. And I too still have mine.

  5. Now you got me. I wasn't following this new set of posts this week, skimming quickly, but this one goes right through the goal posts. So interesting. Need to go to Myers, which always requires a deep breath for me.

    The Awakening is a big deal in the Feminism-Modernism world where I like to hang out, where there are lots of canon questions to be found. The Gender of Modernism is a pretty sweet anthology, if you're looking at those things. I'm pretty happy about having the Norton Anthology of African-American Lit too. I try to pick up these things if I see them around--I think I just got a NA of Literature by Women, but I haven't looked at it. I'd be interested to compare the movements in the NA of American Lit against the NA of English Lit that you're talking about. Perhaps part of the reason that I like to gather them about is that when I did the undergraduate survey (lower division, at UCSB) as a frosh-soph we didn't use the NA. Seems almost impossible. My favorite anthology was one of 18th Century poetry and prose--I'd have to look at the edition, but it was the light brown/beige companion to the ruddy Romantic anthology.

  6. I had a teacher years ago who was heavily involved in designing state-level literature curricula (for a populous U.S. state), and found that her distaste for the anthologization of literature was not shared by the publishers who made their living off of discouraging students from using the library. That's perhaps a bit unfair, but it is galling to see how often excerpts from works (particularly novels) are used to stand in for the works themselves, which students are perfectly capable of reading in their entirety.

  7. An example from Doug's site: a suitably ponderous William Dean Howells from an 1897 "Authors" set. Vice? I believe you mean "one of my public services".

    I enjoyed some good Whittier poems over thisaway, but for a poet who was capable of writing good poems, he wrote the most astoundingly bad ones, and plenty of 'em.

    Not a professor, I want to be diplomatic myself. I do share Rohan's lack of patience, and wonder if the move by some people in the humanities to mimic the social sciences is wise.

    Scott, the Norton anthologies actually resist excerpting from novels. Much of the additional 400 pages added between the 5th and 7th editions contain the entirety of Frankenstein and Things Fall Apart. It is all a question of time and energy, more than capability. I wonder if, given the resources of the internet, the age of the classroom anthology is nearing its end. I hope not - I cannot describe how much I learned from ransacking that 5th edition, including every dang page of the Brit Lit I anthology.

    zhiv, this MLA database is too much fun. Dangerous. More of it tomorrow. Norton puts tables of contents up on their website (see above), so the American one should be easy to find.

    1. You're right, of course, about the Nortons. I've been noticing in my recent reading a lot of anecdotes about what people brought along to read on their travels (or into exile), and am suddenly reminded that I once took the Norton poetry anthology (fat edition) on a month long trip. A question of time and energy, yes, and also of stamina. My back is still recovering.

    2. The newer editions - latest is over 3,000 pages - are much heavier than the 5th. Poor travelers! But I suppose we are moving in the direction of the computer pad, bringing the entire semi-edited, unannotated public domain with us when we travel.

    3. Not every anthology is a Norton, sadly. There are no wonderful anthologies in French that house entire novels, though I have one that contains a couple of short plays. When I look online at my colleagues' syllabi for literature survey classes, there is a lot of variance: some seem to teach only anthologized excerpts, while others teach only entire works, and others teach the golden mean, I suppose. I go the whole-works direction, myself: this semester, the second half of the literature survey, I had them read Un coeur simple, Therese Raquin, Huis clos, Moderato cantabile, and Nathalie Sarraute's Enfance, plus a whole schmear of poetry. But there is so much, so much they did not read. Time and energy, again.

  8. One thing that comes out of the move towards people in the humanities trying to mimic the social sciences is that undergraduates can get a sense of aesthetic standards from age to age--if you have a few poems in the anthology that are not as good, you can see what makes the good ones better.

  9. Jeanne, that is just literary history, or perhaps aesthetic philosophy, old and noble pursuits, always housed in the humanities.