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Teaching ethnic American literary anthologies.


By comparing and contrasting the elements of W.W. Norton and Company's two ethnic American anthologies--The Norton Anthology of African American Literature and Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology--I show that Norton prefers one anthology to the other, probably for reasons of potential market value. Norton's "A-list" anthologies, such as The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, are privy to publication opportunities that Norton's "B-list" anthologies, such as Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, apparently are not. This comparative analysis demonstrates differences between the two anthologies in such elements as their titles, covers, contents, numbers of pages, treatments of language diversity, and integrations of non-print media. In light of various political and economic factors that contribute to the anthologizing process, I offer a schema whereby anthologies can be taught effectively.


W.W. Norton & Company's two ethnic American anthologies are The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, and Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, edited by Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein. The volumes adhere to Norton's prescribed formats for the two main series of the publishing company's literary anthologies, though they share several of Norton's stock features: "the same tried-and-true layout and graphic design, structuring principles, and conventions of annotation" (Eichelberger 116). They also follow chronological outlines that feature descriptive titles for each historical period and literary movement. The similarities end there, and the differences surface beyond these structural principles. The implications of the differences indicate the preference that Norton gives to Gates and McKay's volume. When using these anthologies as instructional resources--given the politics of canonization--teachers must keep in mind that literary traditions cannot be bound by a single books' covers.

Anthologies easily identified by the "The Norton Anthology of ..." format of their titles comprise Norton's chief series (Hellerstein, Telephone Interview) and usually include texts that are widely considered to be "great works" of literature, while the anthologies in Norton's other series seem to provide forums for lesser read texts and literary traditions. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and The Norton Anthology of English Literature are some examples of anthologies in the former series, hereafter referred to as the "A list;" these anthologies are Norton's biggest sellers, and they survey vast literary traditions (Kelly). On the other hand, Norton publishes Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology, English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, and The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, for example, under a different series, hereafter known as the "B list." These anthologies, identified by the "...: A Norton Anthology" structure of their titles, are not only more particularized in their foci, but they usually are smaller in length, include fewer selections, and receive less publicity.

An "A-list" anthology, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature was published in 1997 with prolific publicity geared towards academic circles and the general public. On the other hand, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, on the "B list," was never expected to sell very well (Hellerstein, Personal Interview), and, consequently, hit the shelves quietly and without much publicity. A recent search through Google turned up 307 hits for "Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology," in contrast to 1,390 hits for "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature." The profusion of Internet sites that refer to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature is due, in part, to the copious publicity for the anthology, which led to increased awareness of its existence. Inversely, the lack of Norton's publicity of Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology probably contributes to the lack of attention that has been paid to the volume. Gates and McKay's volume--as well as Norton--have benefited from the marketing and exposure that Norton provides and provided it; Chametzky, Felstiner, Flanzbaum, and Hellerstein may not feel the same about theirs.

The books' titles and covers further indicate preferential treatment. Norton identifies The Norton Anthology of African American Literature as "the" definitive anthology--the only one that Norton would publish on African American literature--but rebuffs Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology as "a" Norton anthology, tentatively one of several on Norton's roster. "The," a definite article, denotes Norton's claim to the former anthology as the anthology of which to be proud, with which to be readily and easily identified. "A," an indefinite article, does just the opposite. Norton certainly could have claimed Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology as "the" definitive anthology that Norton would publish on this literary tradition; instead, Norton implies that it might eventually publish another anthology of Jewish American literature, such that Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology becomes one of many. In contrast, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature is definitive and will probably be Norton's only anthology of this particular literary tradition.

The cover art suggests each anthology's message of the role of its literary tradition in greater American society. For example, Charles H. Alston's "Family," on the cover of Gates and McKay's anthology, depicts generations of what appears to be a working class, black family, as indicated by the clothing and setting. The mother, clad in a blue dress, sits with her hands in her lap, while her husband, wearing a white t-shirt, stands by. Their two children--a girl in a pink shirt and black skirt, and a boy in a striped frock with a red ball in his hand--stand in front of their father and next to their mother. Planked walls, an architectural feature prevalent in southern African American communities (Vlach 122-138), frame the family, suggesting that this family has roots in the American south. The image advances Gates and McKay's assertions that cross-generational, working, and southern traditions influence the development of African American literature (xxxxviii).

On the cover of Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, Raphael Soyer's "The Bridge" consists of a scene on a bridge, speculated by Felstiner to be either the Williamsburg or Brooklyn Bridge (ctd. in Wall). A cityscape serves as the background for the painting: high-rise tenements, factories, and a water tower line the bridge. On the bridge are boys, couples, police officers, a mother holding her baby, and miscellaneous men and women. The men wear dark suits, possibly reminiscent of ultra-Orthodox Jews, although there are no other apparent religions markers. The indistinctness surrounding the identities of the figures in the picture also affects their relationship to the bridge: are they crossing into New York, into their Jewish enclaves; or, are they leaving their communities, assimilating into the American world beyond? The ambiguity of Soyer's picture supports the assimilationist notions of Jewish American literature that the editors elucidate (Chametzky, et al. 2-3).

The two anthologies' title pages and tables of contents exhibit structural similarities between them: their fonts, graphic layouts, and compositions are comparable. The title pages reiterate the anthologies' titles, include distinct graphics, list the editors by name and university affiliation, and the Norton logo. The tables of contents also display a likeness: "Contents" features prominently at the tops of the pages underneath recurrences of the graphics that appear on the title pages. The contents consist mostly of chronological separations, such as "Literature of Slavery and Freedom: 1746-1865," or "Literature of Arrival: 1654-1880," with few exceptions. For example, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology intermixes two sections that depart from chronological trends and instead address more popular contributions to American culture. Bibliographies of the authors anthologized, acknowledgements of permissions granted, and indices conclude the tables of contents.

The differences between the anthologies surround their contents: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature's 2,665 pages include thirteen sections, while Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology's 1,221 pages include fifteen. Hellerstein maintains that Norton was amenable to expanding the original page limits when Chametzky, Felstiner, Flanzbaum, and she exceeded the number of pages originally allowed to them (Hellerstein, Telephone Interview). As a "B-list" anthology, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology was never expected to sell well enough to pay for its own production costs. Accordingly, in order to accommodate the page limitations imposed by Norton, the editors omitted entries of such key figures in Jewish American literature as Arthur A. Cohen and Fanny Brice.

The editors impose language choices on readers. Gates and McKay's choice acknowledges that there might be some difficulty in understanding the changing African American vernacular as it is represented in writing. Yet, Gates and McKay leave any variations in spellings or sentence constructions untouched. Instead, they provide annotations in which the editors clarify certain words that have special meanings in African American Vernacular English, especially as those meanings change over time (Gates and McKay xl). The variations provide insight into the regional, generational, intellectual, and cultural differences that prevail in African American literature; Gates and McKay uphold the language diversity found in their anthology.

Chametzky, et al.'s treatment of language diversity is different: several of the writers included in Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology spoke and wrote in languages other than English, namely Hebrew, Ladino, and especially Yiddish. Only three of the anthologized works feature the original Yiddish or Hebrew texts with the English translations, although approximately 130 entries were written in other languages. Although Jewish American communities are inherently bilingual, at the least, Hellerstein offers that Norton and the editors did not intend for the anthology to be bilingual (Hellerstein, Telephone Interview). Moreover, the editors "modernized most spellings and ... the punctuation so that archaic usage does not pose unnecessary problems. [They] have followed ... the YIVO system of transliteration of Yiddish and the Prooftexts style sheet for Hebrew ..." (Chametzky, et al. xxi-xxii). The result of the implementation of such conventions is a homogeneity that does not exist in Jewish American literature.

One last major difference between the anthologies is Gates and McKay's addition of a CD that comes with the paperback editions of the anthology. They arrange the CD as they do the book--in chronological order--and they include many oral and aural examples of the texts that they present in "The Vernacular Tradition." The CD offers an innovative look at African American culture and links together African American literary ttaditions--which includes lyrical, oratory, and musical--with popular, public performances, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech or relatively contemporary forms of rap. Because of the costs of producing non-print media supplements, only those anthologies on the "A-list"--those that are expected to sell widely--are authorized to compile them (Hellerstein, Personal Interview).

Accordingly, Chametzky and his team do not supply an audio or interactive supplement, although including the text versions of jokes in the section entitled "Jewish Humor" and of Broadway anthems in "The Golden Age of Broadway Song" seems peculiar without audio renditions. These two facets of Jewish American literature are important enough to anthologize textually, and should be important enough to anthologize audibly. In fact, according to Gates and McKay, their anthology and CD "offer side by side the written and oral traditions, thus illuminating the connections between them" (xxxviii). This qualification appears perfectly reasonable and relatable to Jewish American literature, but for Norton, "the bottom line is always ... the issue in making a book" (Hellerstein, Telephone Interview).

A concession to these differences, as well as to Norton's preferential treatment of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature over Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, is that at least the editors will have the chance to revise their respective anthologies with later editions. The former anthology as a part of Norton's principal literary anthology series and the latter as a part of a secondary series suggests that Norton afforded Gates and McKay more opportunities for developing their anthology than the publishing company did Chametzky, Felstiner, Flanzbaum, and Hellerstein. Maybe if interest in Chametzky, Felstiner, Flanzbanm, and Hellerstein's anthology grows, Norton will realize its own shortsightedness and allow these editors the same opportunities as Gates and McKay. Both bodies of literature deserve equal anthological opportunity, at the very least, because they are both prolific and significant contributors to greater American culture. Norton, the publishing company that defines the canon "more than any other single academic publisher" (Eichelberger 116), would serve academia well to provide analogous publications.

Issues of canonization pervade discussions of these anthologies, as well as any anthologies. An anthology may serve as an instructor's main resource on and presentation of a literary tradition. Because, however, Norton and the editors make certain decisions about how to represent the literary tradition, and thus canonize it in the anthology, students never know what lies beyond the book covers, for good or for bad. Gerald Graft compels instructors to "teach the conflicts" (ctd. in Nelson 91) in order to reconcile the problem inherent to anthologies: challenging the "canon" becomes virtually impossible if teachers are content to rely on one source. Cary Nelson, adopting Grafffs pedagogy, wants to expose the insufficiencies in the anthologies and to examine them. He wants to make sure that students, as well as instructors, understand that canons are ever-evolving and that what Norton may provide is merely a part of the whole.

Gates himself acknowledges that "there is real danger of localizing our [interests]; of the easy personification, assigning a celebrated face to the forces of reaction and so giving too much credit to a few men who are really symptomatic of a larger political current" ("The Master's Pieces" 18). Even Gates, then, recognizes that anthologies represent a political fraction of a much wider body of texts; editors pick and choose according to their own political agendas and blur the lines between literary studies and "real-world commitments" (18). Furthermore, Nelson writes that "anthologies are, in a significant way, representations of the wider social text, figurations of the body politic; their compilation and use is thus fraught with social and political meaning and responsibility" (29). The "responsibility" part of Nelson's claim leads to the analysis of pedagogical matters: how instructors use these texts that advance the editors" points-of-view is an important aspect of teaching literary studies.

Because anthologies do provide neatly packaged versions of literary canons, instructors are bound to utilize them, whether or not the anthologies exude social, political, or aesthetic biases. Nelson responds to this inevitability by urging instructors to take the responsibility to allow their students to react to the texts, to encourage the empowerment that arises once the students make connections between the texts and public discourse (30), especially as the students discover the greater social, political, and aesthetic contexts. Anthologies, stresses Nelson, assume a role "'in promoting values that are exclusionary or inclusive, in valuing or devaluing minority and working-class cultures, in familiarizing readers with different traditions, and in imaging a multicultural body politic ..." (30-31). Because reading the texts may subsequently provoke certain feelings or sensations in students that are new or confused, instructors should allow their students the opportunity to react to the literature, so as "not only [to] teach the conflicts [therein], as Gerald Graff has helpfully argued, but also [to] work with our students to find grounds for negotiation and mutual accommodation" (34).

In other words, anthologies, especially the African American anthology and the Jewish American anthology, can serve as catalysts for the kinds of discussions that indicate greater social and critical consciousness. In this way, personal involvement is as legitimate as it is unavoidable, and instructors ought to enable their students to take advantage of such a wonderful opportunity of self-exploration and growth. "We," states Nelson,
 read [a] ... canon [via an anthology] either in the aftermath or
 the very midst of ... struggles for broader cultural
 representation.... [T]he ... canon will [not] necessarily emphasize
 the signs of that struggle in the future. Yet successive generations
 do need to learn a lesson from these debates; they too should pose
 themselves for those basic questions about what they are reading
 and why they are reading it; they too should interrogate the social
 meaning of the [anthologized literature]. (104)

Instructors should be prepared to encounter and share their own struggles to break down the boundaries established through canonization. In this way, instructors and students encourage the expansion and development of canonical constraints and allow for the reconstruction of canons as anthologies represent them.

Works Cited

Chametzky, Jules; John Felstiner; Hilene Flanzbaum; and Kathryn Hellerstein, eds. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Eichelberger, Julia. "Acts of Love: Two Anthologies of African American Literature." Rev. of The Norton Anthology African American Literature by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Mississippi Quarterly 53 (Winter 1999-2000): 111-129.

"English: The Norton Anthologies." 2003. W.W. Norton & Company. May 18, 2003. <>.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. "The Master's Pieces: On Canon Formation and the Afro-American Tradition." The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance. Ed. Dominick LaCapra. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991: 17-38.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Hellerstein, Kathryn. Personal Interview. Philadelphia. May 21, 2001.

--. Telephone Interview. July 3, 2003.

"Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology." 2003. Google. May 18, 2003. < American+Literature%3A+A+Norton+Anthology%22&btnG=Google+Search>.

Kelly, John. "RE: frequency of editions?" E-mail to the author. May 6, 2001.

Nelson, Cary. Manifesto of a Tenured Radical. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

"The Norton Anthology of African American Literature." 2003. Google. May 18, 2003. < Anthology+of+African+American+Literature%22&btnG=Google+Search>.

Vlach, John Michael. The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Wall, Alexandra. "Standard Professor Celebrates New Anthology of Jewish Writing." February 16, 2001. Jewish Bulletin News. May 15, 2001. <>

Rachel Leah Jablon, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Jablon studies African American and Jewish literatures, as well as performative culture, in the Department of Comparative Literature. She teaches courses on film and on literatures of Africa and the African diaspora.
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Author:Jablon, Rachel Leah
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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