Keeper of the Canon

Rachel Donadio in the New York Times:

Dona450Since it first appeared in 1962, “The Norton Anthology of English Literature” has remained the sine qua non of college textbooks, setting the agenda for the study of English literature in this country and beyond. Its editor, therefore, holds one of the most powerful posts in the world of letters, and is symbolically seen as arbiter of the canon.

With the publication of the anthology’s newest edition this month, Norton is marking a significant generational shift: after more than 40 years as founding and general editor, M. H. Abrams, a leading scholar of Romanticism, is handing the reins over to Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor.

Although assailed by some for being too canonical and by others for faddishly expanding the reading list, the anthology has prevailed over the years, due in large part to the talents of Abrams, who refined the art of stuffing 13 centuries of literature into 6,000-odd pages of wispy cigarette paper. It’s a zero-sum game; for everything that was added, something else had to come out. “It’s important not to let the anthology become institutionalized, or a monument,” Abrams said in a recent conversation about his life and work. “It has to be a living, growing thing.”

More here.