The 7th Edition of the Norton Anthology, Survey Courses, Publishing and the Canon
If you are enrolled in English 211 this fall, you can start preparing for one of our long-term course discussion issues by beginning to think about how the traditional literature "survey course" is affected by the process of "canon formation" and the role played in that ongoing process by the production of new editions of popular anthologies. This anthology silently dropped one female Renaissance author (Dorothy Osborne) while boasting often about adding several others, and dropped many short poems from samples of collections even as others were added. For Shakespeare, Lear and Twelfth Night are in, and Part One of King Henry IV is out. The editors explain some of their decisions in the introduction (xxxiii-xli), but I am not convinced that all of them are "improvements" rather than the Norton company's cynical attempt to make money by making the new edition as incompatible as possible with the old. It makes sense for them to publish a new edition, for which few used copies will be available, after an old edition's used copies have saturated the college textbook market. New editions are more profitable than old ones, which tend to earn less and less money every year as wise students buy used rather than new copies.
"So why use an anthology at all?," you ask. Think about the cost of having to buy all the individual works as separate volumes--we could be doing it that way, and we'd avoid yet another problem. Anthologies are full of excerpts, deliberately incomplete editions of larger works or collections of works--what is the effect of reading fragments of larger things when the larger thing is available to us? Given that the task of reading all the major authors and works from the period is economically unfair to the student and physically impossible as well, we're doomed to use the anthology for the foreseeable future. How can we best protect ourselves from the bad effects of doing so? First, carefully read the short introductions to the works, themselves, for advance warning about how much they've left out, but how else should we prepare ourselves to "survey" this literary era?
Paper writers could examine not just the primary text of some newly added or "old warhorse" works, but they also could read the Norton's introductions with a critical eye, looking for the ways the editors construct the work's worthiness to be included in the anthology. Do they openly acknowledge the question, or do they tend to assume it already has been answered? If the latter, what kinds of issues does the introduction claim are relevant to the work's importance, and how might those issues reflect their assumptions about the relative "unworthiness" of their opposites (e.g., complexity vs. simplicity, published works vs. works never published during the author's lifetime, works read by socially powerful people vs. works written for the masses).
Or paper writers could look at the publishing history of research on a newly included work or author? Consult the MLA Bibliography online (at the library web site) and trace the "paper trail" of articles, books, and book reviews that established the work's or author's importance. How long ago did the work/author enter the Norton Anthology, and how did succeeding editions of the anthology represent the work/author--excerpts or whole works, preface and annotation changes, comparison to "the greats" or apologies for "minor league" status? (English Department faculty can provide early editions. (Arnie Sanders has the 2nd , 5th , and 6th , and he thinks he has the 1st  somewhere in the house.] Go to the library or to specialized literary organization web sites to see when learned papers on this work/author were first read to conferences and congresses. The MLA's annual convention program is published in the late fall, and since 1999, the annual Medieval Institute International Congress (AKA "Kalamazoo") publishes its participants' paper titles online at their web site. (Conference papers ordinarily precede the first published articles by months or years, so if you can spot the first publications, you know when to look to spot the era in which the talks probably first appeared. Who are the scholars active in building the work's or author's critical reputation, and what are their relationships to one another? What are their critical approaches, special skills, and pet peeves? What are they fighting for and against? Get to know a real part of the scholarly community in action.
An exam writer who was trying to design an essay question which covered the entire semester might be tempted to ask students to construct an argument for the inclusion of three or more works in a "new, revised edition of the Norton" to be published next year, including one kind of work that the Norton does not represent, or represents with only a few examples. Arguing the case for those works' inclusion would require students to choose their own criteria for selection, in effect writing their own "introductory preface" for the new edition's examples of the works in question. Would the work be excerpted, or would you insist on publishing the entire work, and if it's large, what other work of similar size might you use to justify its relative value to readers. How would its inclusion enable students who come after you to achieve a better understanding of the canon of English literature?