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

American Anthologies and Histories

Kenneth M. Roemer
University of Texas at Arlington

ne of the most efficient ways to become acquainted with the dramatic changes in how "American literature" is conceived, packaged and delivered is to browse through examples of titles, covers, and tables of contents reproduced from significant anthologies and histories. Even glancing at a few table of contents pages can raise fundamental questions about the importance of literary movements; periodization; geographic, gender, race, class, and age representations of "America," and theoretical, institutional, and disciplinary changes.

For instance, how can anthologies be used to demonstrate that a particular "literature" has sufficient "quantity" to be studied and sufficient "quality" (including "masterpieces" and "renaissances") to be studied "seriously" and passed on to the next generation as a worthy representation of American culture? Should a history or an anthology stress coherent themes, motifs, and patterns that distinguish a cultural or national identity or should they stress pluralities and the blurring of identity definitions? To what degree does/should an anthology or history reflect current theoretical and ideological orientations? What do the changing natures of editorial boards and publishing companies say about who defines American culture?

These questions may sound "academic," and indeed they are. But they should also concern any group in America dedicated to forming, preserving, and distributing concepts of our literature and culture, whether they be teachers, students, librarians, book dealers, publishers, parents serving on school boards, or political and religious leaders.

As I indicated in a fall 1999 Heath Anthology of American Literature Newsletter article "The Tales Tables (of Contents) Tell," (included as the "Introduction" to this web site), the present collection began with anthologies of early American literature. This focus reflects my belief that the definition of the "beginnings" often sets patterns for the rest of the portrait of American literature.

There is still some emphasis on early American literature and the collection is certainly not exhaustive. The most significant improvement reflected in the present collection of more than100 volumes is the additional coverage of the 19th and 20th centuries. The online collection has almost tripled in size since its first appearance in the fall of 2000. Much of the expansion is due to the inclusion of entire two-volume tables of contents; the earlier collections frequently omitted much of the 19th and all of the 20th century. There are also important additions of anthologies not previously listed, including significant volumes mentioned in Jane Tompkins' "But Is It Any Good" chapter in Sensational Designs (1985). The publication time frame has also expanded back to 1829.

The web site is once again in transition. During the summer of 2009, we compared our collection to the anthologies list in the primary sources bibliography of Joseph Csicsila's Canons by Consensus: Critical Trends and American Literary Anthologies (2004). We added the missing volumes. We have also scanned all the subject indices (i.e., lists of all the American authors in each issue followed by the number of times that issue includes mention of articles and books about the author; 1963 — current) from the annual publication, American Literary Scholarship (ALS). These indices provide important historical insights about canon formation by suggesting which authors scholars deemed worthy of study since the mid-20th century. Other additional items scanned include Csicsila’s secondary bibliography of studies of canon formation and selected "The Extra" articles that focused on canon formation from the journal American Literature during the height of the Canon Wars in the 1980s.

We will move all the new material (at least 86 volumes) and the present web site to the Research Commons (D-Space) of the University of Texas at Arlington where the site can be better maintained. We are also hard at work making the future site searchable by year, author, editor, and anthology and selection title. The eventual goal over the next few years is a comprehensive collection that will eventually also include high school anthologies and, for example, permit Internet users to type in "Herman Melville" or "Toni Morrison" and find all the selections anthologized for these authors or selections from particular historical periods. This research archive will, thus, allow students, school boards, librarians, teachers, and researches to formulate accurate generalities about how anthology editors, publishers, and, by implication, academic institutions "behind" them defined American literature, Americans, and American culture.

Even with all these additions and improvements, the collection will still be selective, if we take into consideration developments such as the Pearson Custom Library of American Literature, which allows instructors to create customized print anthologies drawing from more than 1700 selections, and the numerous online opportunities that open up a new world of customized electronic anthology creation.

The responses to the present collection, as limited as it is, have been encouraging. Between November 2006 and the end of 2009, the site received almost 10,000 "hits." The web site is also the first resource discussed in the Introduction ("What is American Literature?" section) to Martha L. Brogan and Daphnée Rentfrow's A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature (Washington, D.C.: Council on Library Information Resources and Digital Library Federation, 2005 (2-3).

Brogan and Rentfrow are recognizing the work of a team, not an individual. I would like to thank Paul Lauter of Trinity College and Carla Mulford of Pennsylvania State University for encouraging me and offering advice about this project. Phil Cohen and Tim Morris, my former Departmental Chairs, and Victor Vitanza, the former Departmental Webmaster, allowed me to occupy Departmental virtual space at the University of Texas at Arlington. I owe a special debt to Matthew Levy and Robert Flach, who designed and redesigned the web site, and who, along with Ryan Beatty and Jared Chambers, spent many hours transforming my hard copies into the electrons before your eyes. Professor Carolyn Guertin, the Director of the University of Texas at Arlington's e-Create Lab has graciously offered her expert advice about design and distribution of the Web site. I am also indebted to scholars from around the country, in particular John Bryant, Loren Gruber, and Sondra Reid for pointing out possible improvements in design and omissions in the earlier collections.

Since the summer of 2009, I have been especially indebted to the team working on the beginning stages of the next major development in expansion and redesign. This University of Texas at Arlington team includes two new Associate Editors, Lorie Jacobs and Bethany Shaffer; the Coordinator of Digital Media Services, Karen Horsfall, and two of her Web Specialists, Julie Williams and Scott Holmes; a Librarian, Ramona Holmes, assisting with the transfer to the Research Commons; and Fillia Makedon, the Chair of Computer Science, who will offer advice on grant proposals and web design. In the near future we will also be adding an Advisory Board.

Finally I would like to thank the College of Liberal Arts, which provided a Seed Grant that supports the new Associate Editors, summer work, and software; Duke University Press for permission to include the ALS indices and the selected "The Extra" articles; and the University of Alabama Press for allowing us to include Csicsila’s secondary bibliography.

Kenneth M. Roemer

March 2010

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