Covers, Titles, and Tables: The Formations of American Literary Canons

American Anthologies and Histories

The Tales Tables (of Contents) Tell

Kenneth M. Roemer
University of Texas at Arlington

An impromptu, show-of-hands survey in a 1999 UT Arlington sophomore American literature class stunned me: more students had read Zora Neal Hurston's fiction than had read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. Certainly times and literary canons have changed since I taught my first American literature class in 1971. But there has been one disturbing constant. Despite more than two decades of canon wars, many students, even some graduate students, seem unaware of how often and how profoundly concepts of American literature have changed since Moses Coit Tyler wrote the first history of American literature in 1878. To address this problem in graduate courses, I can assign several of the many fine articles and books on canon formation. I hesitate to do this at the undergraduate level. For some of the sophomores my course may be the only American literature course (or the only literature course) they take. I want them to focus on the "primary" readings, including Hurston and Emerson. But I also want them to get a sense of the changes. I need a quick and efficient way of accomplishing this.
My approach (which I am sure others have used) is to develop a variety of anthologies (course packets) of tables of contents of histories and anthologies and selected covers. For the sophomores the packets may be only ten pages; for my graduate early American literature class the packet covers thirty-six books and is more than a hundred pages (each page typically includes two book pages). In this brief essay I will indicate a few of the obvious differences in the tables of contents and covers that raise important canon formation issues and have provoked constructive class discussions in the spirit of Gerald Graff's "teach the debate" challenge.
I include six histories written and/or edited by Tyler (1878), Vernon Louis Parrington (1927), Fred Lewis Pattee (1935), Robert E. Spiller (1946), Emory Elliott (1988), and Sacvan Bercovitch (1994). My use of "and/or" reflects one of the first differences the students notice. Since the advent of Spiller's tremendously influential LHUS , the writing of "big" American literature histories has been a group enterprise. The obvious message in 1946 was that the topic was too large and too impressive to be handled by any one scholar. American literature had achieved a critical (group enterprise) mass.
The differing notions of when "American" literature began surprise the students. 1607 (Tyler) and 1620 (Parrington) suggest different British, English language origins (John Smith and Bradford). The opening essays in Spiller and Bercovitch focus on early European explorers and chroniclers; Elliott's history goes back thousands of years to American Indian rock art and oral literature; for Pattee "American" commences in 1770. The shifting dates provoke basic questions about whether the "American" in our literature is primarily English and monolingual, European multicultural, trans-Atlantic multicultural, or defined primarily by legal and political concepts.
The tables of contents of histories also imply differing views of how American literature should be "told": as an authoritative historical chronicle (Tyler); as expressions of important ideals, themes, and unities (Parrington, Pattee, and Spiller); or as a reflection of both the unities and multiplicities of American cultures (Elliott and Bercovitch). There is also a striking change in the tone of authority and assurance. In 1878 Tyler used phrases such as "True Fathers of American literature," "True classifications," "first Americans" (British immigrants), "Birth year of American literature" in his detailed descriptive table of contents. Spiller avoided such precise and absolute terms, but his major headings -- all in capitals and often preceded by a definitive THE ( e.g., "THE COLONIES," "THE REPUBLIC," "THE DEMOCRACY," "LITERARY FULFILLMENT," "CRISIS") spoke of an authoritative statement on the historical progression of our literature.
The more recent histories still use the definitive "the" and some capitalization, but the titles and subtitles are less apt to suggest definite patterns and unified historical progressions. Part I of Elliott's history begins with the unpretentious title "Beginnings to 1810"; in Bercovitch's Volume I "THE LITERATURE OF COLONIZATION" sounds more multilevel and process-oriented than "THE COLONIES." The shifts in tone reflect our more relativistic era and the tremendous expansion of what we now consider American and literature. This expansion makes it very difficult to construct authoritative patterns and themes applicable to all American literature(s). The change in tone can also be used to suggest the institutional coming of age of the discipline of American literature. Certainly Tyler, in 1878, and even Spiller, during the 1940s, were striving for legitimacy and authority. During the late 1980s and the 1990s American literary studies are part of the establishment. Elliott and Bercovitch have the luxury of speaking in more non-authoritarian ways and of allowing "public" disagreements among the contributors to their literary histories.
Because literary histories strongly influence the editors of literary anthologies (indeed the editorial boards often overlap), it is not surprising that many of the differences in the tables of contents of the histories have their equivalents in the anthologies. Editorial boards have expanded in number and diversity; the coming of age of the discipline is signaled by specialized early American anthologies (e.g., in poetry, drama, and literature by women). The radical shifts in the number of authors included in anthologies also reflects critical and institutional changes in the history of the field. In 1919, one year before the formation of the MLA's American Literature Section, the substantial number of authors (more than 100) represented in Fred Lewis Pattee's anthology reflects an understandable desire to announce that there was enough American literature to justify courses and extensive study. The radical shrinking of that number in William Gibson and George Arm's Twelve American Writers (1962) and Norman Foerster and Robert Falk's Eight American Writers (1963) reflects New Critical emphases on careful readings of selected "major" writers and the obvious attempt to prove that America has produced "masterpieces" (and at lest one "renaissance") worthy of international comparisons. The significant increase in numbers of authors and types of written and oral literatures represented in recent anthologies (e.g., the Jehlen-Warner table of contents of English literatures "of America" before 1800 lists 201 selections) makes the "expanding canon" dramatically clear to students.
And of course there is the issue of beginnings. Up until the late 1980s, the major issue of contention seemed to be, should we start with John Smith (e.g., Pearce, Meserole, McMichael, and the early editions of the Norton Anthology ) or William Bradford (e.g., Bradley, Miller, Brooks, Levin). There were important dissident voices, notably Pattee's anthology published by Century, which opened with Franklin; Larzer Ziff 's colonial anthology, which opened with a section including such noted non-Americans and Milton and Herbert; Robert Douglas Mead's collection, which began with "Indian Myths"; and Leslie A. Fiedler and Arthur Zeigler's O Brave New World, which began with Smith but placed him within the context of "The Mythological Heritage" (e.g., Hannah Dustan's story and Irving's "Rip Van Winkle") and followed this section with "The Sentimental Heritage").
It wasn't until the late 1980's and 1990's that a significant number of popular and influential anthologies broke away from the conventional wisdom on beginnings: the 1987 Harper American Literature began with Spanish, French, and British travel accounts followed by translations of Native American oral literature; Heath (1990), Prentice Hall (1991), and Giles Gunn's Early American Writing (1994) began with Native American sections; in Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner's English Literatures of America, 1500-1800 (1997) Marco Polo, Sir John Manderville and Niccolo Machiavelli preceded Columbus, who was followed by Vespucci, King Manuel I, and Nahualt accounts; and the fifth edition of the Norton Anthology begins with European travel accounts followed by Native American creation narratives. The long delay in altering the beginning dates -- and culture(s) -- of American literature suggests that literary anthologies are certainly more conservative than literary scholarship and even more so than literary histories. This is to be expected. Teachers often invest time and much intellectual and emotional energy into course design. Publishers know that changing a popular anthology is more than an intellectual endeavor. It can annoy, insult, confuse, and even threaten teachers (and thus risk losing sales). No wonder publishers began to altered beginnings so late.
Juxtaposing examples of the few covers that I include in the packet sends strong messages about changing attitudes on gender (the stone-carved, male Puritan -- Rev. William Whitwell -- that covers Ziff's anthology vs. the woman's portrait -- Mrs. John Waddell -- that leads us into Harris's American Women Writers ), on race and culture (the many images of New England British colonialism [ e.g., on Pearce's first edition] vs. the Native American motifs of several recent anthologies [e.g., 1994 Harper Vol. 1; 1994 and 1998 Heath Vol. 1; and Jehlen-Warner] ), and on the degree to which American literature can be represented by a few "literary masters" (e.g., the covers of Gibson's and Miller's anthologies and Everett Emerson's influential collection of critical essays simply display the names of the few authors selected, and Eight American Authors: An Anthology of American Literature displays portraits of eight, white, male nineteenth-century masters).
The changes or lack of same between competing new editions suggest revealing dialogues. Each of the covers of the three Heath Vol. 1. anthologies has been different, but all three have portrayed non-East Coast landscapes (Big Sur Coast, Whitehouse Ruins in Canyon de Chelly, and the Acoma Mesa). Norton Vol. 1 has stayed with slightly different renditions of Asher Durand's painting Kindred Spirits, depicting Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant. Heath's images suggest canon as constant evolution with a degree of consistent resistance to past models. Norton's image suggests canon as norm and standard -- an image that professors have come to know and (the publisher hopes) trust.
I'm certain that many readers will have alternative readings of the covers. Furthermore my list of important histories and anthologies is more of a beginner's list than an extensive bibliography; I have hardly touched upon the many issues that can be raised by the small sample in my course packet; and most of the issues I raised are familiar to Americanists. Nonetheless, my comments have, I hope, suggested the usefulness of tables of contents and covers as teaching tools. Even ten pages of them can inspire significant questions, some anticipated, some provocatively unanticipated. One example of the latter was a response to the frequent use of institutional or company names that precede or follow "American literature" in the titles. Did this suggest that our literature was the intellectual or commercial property of entities such as Columbia, Century, Meridian, Harper's, Prentice Hall, Norton, or Heath? I'll leave the answering of that question (if there is an answer) to more experienced editors and publishers than I am. But the question is just one more example of what the real title of this brief introduction should be: the questions tables ask.
Reproduced by permission of the editor of The Heath Anthology of American Literature Newsletter (No. 19, Fall 1999)
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