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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor
The Heath Anthology Newsletter
Fall 1998

Across the Traditionalist-versus-Multiculturalist Divide:
Reevaluating The Heath Anthology from an International Perspective

by Robert Bennett



Publication of The Heath Anthology of American Literature marked a significant milestone in the reconceptualization of American literary studies from a broader multicultural perspective. Consequently, most critical analyses of the anthology focus primarily on the opposition between traditional and multicultural theoretical agendas--either criticizing the anthology's occlusion of canonical classics or praising its inclusion of more multiculturally diverse texts. While this is clearly the primary theoretical context shaping the anthology's reconstruction of the American literary canon, it is not the only theoretical framework within which the anthology can be profitably analyzed. In fact, overemphasizing the debate between traditionalism and multiculturalism often leads to overly predictable, one-dimensional arguments between traditionalists who simply reaffirm their apocalyptic catechism about the death of tradition and multiculturalists who mechanistically tally their quotas of representative minority texts. From a broader perspective, however, The Heath Anthology constitutes a complex editorial project situated at the crossroads of multiple theoretical and pedagogical debates. Contemporary scholarship has rethought the American literary canon in numerous ways, and all of these critical debates are relevant to a more comprehensive understanding of The Heath Anthology's multifaceted reconstruction of the American literary canon.

In this essay, I would like to reframe the critical analysis of The Heath Anthology within a larger framework by drawing on my experience helping to organize a six-week institute that used The Heath Anthology to immerse 18 foreign scholars in an intensive study of American literature. Although I found from this perspective that The Heath Anthology does an exceptional job of balancing its representation of traditional and minority literary traditions, it seems more profitable to explore dimensions of the anthology other than its multicultural agenda. In addition to analyzing how The Heath Anthology expands the American literary canon to include minority texts, for example, one could also analyze how well the anthology reflects other ways in which contemporary scholars are reconfiguring the American literary canon. Similarly, instead of contrasting the anthology's sense of multiculturalism only against orthodox canonical constructions, one might more usefully compare its sense of multiculturalism with alternative constructions of multiculturalism. Finally, instead of limiting analysis to how the anthology functions in the context of American university classrooms, we might think more globally about how it functions internationally in classrooms throughout the world. By broadening the theoretical framework used to analyze The Heath Anthology in this manner, I hope to demonstrate how The Heath Anthology constitutes a multifaceted intervention into contemporary theoretical debates instead of simply reducing it to a one-dimensional multiculturalist manifesto. After all, if The Heath Anthology is only a multicultural coup d'etat then it is largely a fait accompli--for better or for worse. If it is multifaceted exploration of the process of canon formation, however, then it is an ongoing process that requires serious critical reevaluation from multiple theoretical perspectives.

For the past three years, the United States Information Agency has funded a six-week summer institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara to immerse foreign university educators in an intensive study of American literature and culture. The institute was originally organized by Giles Gunn, a professor of English at UCSB, and John Maxwell, the dean of the College of Extension Learning at UCSB. This year, however, other commitments prevented Dr. Gunn from participating, so Shirley Geok-lin Lim, a professor of English and the chair of the Women's Studies program at UCSB, assumed responsibility for codirecting the institute with Dr. Maxwell.

Collectively, these professors have developed a comprehensive program for the study of American literature by integrating classroom lectures with individualized research projects and out-of-classroom field trip experiences. The program's academic core consists of a series of lectures given by professors from universities throughout California. Besides Dr. Lim and Dr. Gunn, this year's lecturers included Charles Altieri (UC Berkeley), Charles Bazerman (UCSB), Alfred Bendixen (Cal State Los Angeles), Elliott Butler-Evans (UCSB), Michael Cowan (UC Santa Cruz), Emory Elliott (UC Riverside), Maria Herrera-Sobek (UCSB), William Davies King (UCSB), Wendy Martin (Claremont), Mark Maslan (UCSB), John Carlos Rowe (UC Irvine), Mark Schlenz (UCSB), and Robyn Wiegman (UC Irvine). Their lectures covered the major periods and genres of American literature, introduced several minority traditions within American literature, and explored various theoretical issues central to the study of American literature. In addition, a faculty mentor from UCSB assisted each participant in designing an individual research project that was presented at the institute's concluding conference. This year's conference, "Reconceptualizations: American Studies in an International Context," included panels on ethnic American literature, gender studies, modernist poetics, theoretical issues in American literary studies, drama, and teaching American literature in international contexts. Finally, the institute's academic program was augmented by a series of weekend trips to San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, California's Central Valley, Los Angeles, and Disneyland--as well as a week-long trip to New York City and Washington, D.C. These trips exposed the participants to some of America's natural landscapes, urban spaces, ethnic communities, architectural monuments, historical landmarks, and various other forms of cultural discourse in order to provide a broader context for understanding American literature.

For the past two years, The Heath Anthology of American Literature has been the institute's principle text because its broad, multicultural reconceptualization of the American literary canon compliments two of the institute's primary pedagogical objectives: (1) to present American literature from a broad multicultural perspective and (2) to introduce some of the theoretical debates that have influenced both the expansion of the American literary canon in particular and the reconceptualization of numerous other aspects of American literary studies in general. Consequently, the lecturers were asked to use The Heath Anthology as their principal reference both for selecting the primary texts that they assigned to be read in preparation for their lectures and for recommending additional texts that the participants could read later to develop a deeper understanding of their lecture topic.

The anthology proved very successful in this regard since almost every lecturer found ample material to illustrate the points they wanted to cover. In particular, the anthology's systematic inclusion of a wide variety of minority texts enabled the lecturers to cover the historical evolution of several minority literary traditions instead of simply using one or two representative texts to project an oversimplified view of these traditions' defining characteristics. Moreover, neither the lecturers focusing on traditional literary periods nor the lecturers exploring minority traditions requested significant additional primary resources beyond The Heath Anthology itself. Instead, the lecturers who encountered the most difficulties finding representative texts in the anthology were those trying to extend the notion of literary studies to include a broader range of cultural discourses such as environmentalist, naturalist, or cybercultural discourses. This contrast between the anthology's inclusion of both traditional and minority literary traditions and its exclusion of other kinds of cultural discourses suggests that it might be useful to reconfigure the critical framework used to analyze the anthology. It does not make much sense to criticize the anthology for simply destroying tradition because the anthology strives to balance its coverage of traditional and minority texts--even if one might reasonably disagree with any of the editors' specific choices. One might more profitably interrogate, however, whether the anthology's focus on balancing traditional and minority texts obscures other ways in which critics are currently reconceptualizing American literary studies. For example, many critics want to expand literary studies into some form of cultural studies by including a broader range of paraliterary cultural discourses. Although The Heath Anthology does include an expansive sense of minority paraliterary forms--such as Mexican-American corridos, African-American blues lyrics, and Chinese immigrant poetry composed on walls--this sense of paraliterary cultural discourses is not consistently extended to nonminority paraliterary forms. Similarly, early paraliterary forms such as oral folklore traditions and the blues are better represented than later forms such as science fiction or rap music. Although there are arguably legitimate theoretical and practical reasons for this selective inclusion of paraliterary forms, some critics might advocate a broader and more systematic inclusion of such forms.

In addition to functioning as the institute's primary textual resource, The Heath Anthology also enhanced the institute's experiential dimension because its broad multicultural perspective provided a rich guide for the participants' various travels across California and the United States. For example, the trip to San Francisco was not only the participants' first excursion beyond Santa Barbara's relatively calm shores, but it also thrust them into several new layers of American culture ranging from Chinatown to gay pride week celebrations. Lectures on Asian-American literature and theories of gender and sexuality based on selections from The Heath Anthology, however, helped the participants better understand and appreciate their experiences in a multicultural American city like San Francisco. Similarly, the participants' trip to Yosemite was preceded by a lecture on environmental literature and followed by a lecture on Native American literature. In this sense, the institute's academic and experiential dimensions complemented each other by creating a dynamic interaction between various texts and contexts, and The Heath Anthology significantly expanded the scope of this interaction by introducing a greater variety of literary texts that revealed more layers of American life and history. This dynamic interaction between texts and contexts illustrates another reason for broadly reconstructing the American literary canon. The full richness of American history and experience cannot be adequately understood without understanding America's wide variety of cultural discourses.

Although the institute's organizers and participants generally concurred that The Heath Anthology nicely complemented the institute's multicultural curricular objectives, it is perhaps less clear how the anthology can contribute to the institute's larger objective of improving how foreign scholars teach American literature in classrooms outside the United States. After all, the anthology was specifically designed to present American literature from a multicultural perspective, but it was not specifically designed to be used as an international American literature anthology. My experiences working with this institute showed that there are strong affinities between The Heath Anthology's multicultural agenda and the needs and interests of international scholars, but there are also substantial differences. At first glance, The Heath Anthology's multicultural perspective seems well adapted to the interests of international scholars as they often want to explore cross-cultural relationships between their own countries and the United States. Several of the professors attending the institute focused their individual research on multicultural topics ranging from the relationship between postmodernism and African-American literature to the multiple cultural contexts of Cuban-American fiction and the representation of Filipinos in Asian-American literature. In addition, both my survey of and discussions with the professors showed that they overwhelmingly approved of The Heath Anthology's multicultural perspective. Consequently, I was somewhat surprised to find out that few of the professors planned to use The Heath Anthology in the classes that they taught back in their home countries--at least in the same way that the anthology is generally used in American classrooms. The professors cited three obstacles--insufficient financial resources, inadequate knowledge of minority literary traditions, and different international cultural and political contexts--that they felt would limit and/or alter the way in which they would use The Heath Anthology in international contexts. Although their concerns derive primarily from the specific international contexts in which they teach, their international perspectives also cast light on various issues faced by American teachers as well.

Most institute participants cited financial considerations as the most significant and intractable obstacle preventing them from using The Heath Anthology in international contexts. Although most American students can easily afford to buy The Heath Anthology, students, teachers, and even libraries in many parts of the world--especially in developing countries--find its cost prohibitive. Even if The Heath Anthology may not cost significantly more than other anthologies, seemingly small price differences become more significant when money is in short supply. Perhaps even more importantly, universities with limited resources must make do with existing resources instead of purchasing new ones, so they are often financially constrained to follow more conservative curricula than they might develop if they had more resources. Consequently, any effort to export The Heath Anthology's multicultural agenda internationally must first overcome this financial barrier either by helping international scholars and universities to access more resources or by finding creative ways to produce a less expensive version of the anthology. Unfortunately, neither of these solutions seems very easy to implement. An alternative approach to this dilemma, however, might be to rethink how The Heath Anthology is used in international contexts. Even though most of the institute participants felt that The Heath Anthology would be too expensive to assign as a textbook for their students, they generally concurred that it would significantly influence both how they understood American literature and how they structured the courses that they taught. In short, they saw The Heath Anthology as a resource for teachers or libraries rather than as a textbook for students. Consequently, international scholars might find it helpful to have a teaching supplement that could help explain what kinds of pedagogical adjustments would make the anthology a more useful resource in this kind of situation. An interesting parallel could also be drawn to American high school classrooms. While it seems unlikely that many American high schools would use The Heath Anthology as their primary classroom textbook, it could be a useful resource for high school teachers if they could be taught how to use it effectively as a supplementary resource rather than as a textbook.

The second obstacle limiting international scholars' use of multicultural anthologies like The Heath is that they need more instruction about minority literatures and how to teach them. Even after completing this intensive six-week program with a strong multicultural focus taught by nationally renowned scholars, several of the participants still felt inadequately prepared to teach American minority literatures in their classes when they returned home. They were more excited about and interested in reconstructing American literature from a multicultural perspective, but they were also more aware about how much they still needed to learn. By the end of the institute, they had come to see The Heath Anthology as a great resource for teaching American literature from a multicultural perspective, but they wanted supplementary materials to help show them how to use it. In international contexts where educators might have less experiential and/or educational knowledge of American minority cultures, supplementary resources like those found in The Heath Anthology teaching supplement or those available online at The Heath Anthology Web site become even more important. In certain cases these resources might even need to be expanded and further supplemented to provide additional information less available in foreign contexts. In many ways, The Heath Anthology Web site can play a crucial role in providing such additional supplementary materials since it can make a wide variety of supplementary teaching resources available in a relatively inexpensive manner. In addition, it could be used to facilitate a discussion forum where international scholars could discuss strategies for adapting The Heath Anthology to international contexts. Even cyberspace is no panacea, however, since inadequate financial resources limit many international scholars from gaining access to online resources. Nevertheless, online resources might be the most effective means for disseminating pedagogical resources internationally. Most of the institute participants had some sort of access to the Internet in their home countries--even if they came from places where they felt that The Heath Anthology was completely unaffordable for their students.

Finally, a criticism raised by several professors was that The Heath Anthology was actually too narrow rather than too broad. For example, Regina Groyon, a professor from the University of Saint La Salle in the Philippines, pointed out that even though the anthology "offers so much that is not readily available in any one text," it still "ignores Filipino-American writing except for Carlos Bulosan." Similarly, both Akram Habeeb, a professor from the Islamic University of Gaza under the Palestinian Authority, and Mohamed Boubaker, a professor from the University of Sfax in Tunisia, criticized The Heath Anthology for not representing Arab-American writers. Ogo Ofuani, the head of the English Department at the University of Benin in Nigeria, even questioned whether The Heath Anthology could be expanded to include African diasporic writers living in the United States. On the surface, these comments suggest a rather obvious and unrealistic complaint: that The Heath Anthology does not include every writer imaginable. At a deeper level, however, these professors' comments raise a potentially valid question: to what extent is The Heath Anthology's multicultural construction itself parochial or ethnocentric? The Heath Anthology does include numerous writers from several minority traditions widely taught in American universities: Native American, African American, Chicano/a, and Asian American. However, it does not include many texts representing a broader sense of America's global interconnectedness with cultural traditions from other regions such as the Caribbean, South Pacific, and Middle East. Consequently, scholars from these regions may appreciate how The Heath Anthology expands the American literary canon, but it may not meet their pedagogical needs because it still does not include the particular texts that they are most likely to teach. Moreover, these scholars' alternative perspective on which minority writers and traditions are most important calls into question the current construction of American multiculturalism by reminding us that we continually need to reconsider how even the concept of American multiculturalism can be constructed differently. In this sense, international scholars can teach American scholars as much as they can be taught by them, since international scholars collectively represent multiple perspectives on the vast diversity of American minority writers and cultural traditions.

Ultimately, these issues raise interesting questions about the nature of canon formation itself. Can The Heath Anthology, or any other multicultural anthology, ever function as an alternative multicultural canon--especially on an international scale--or should there be multiple canons adapted for specific cultural contexts? As the American literary canon continues expanding to include both more minority traditions and more writers within each minority tradition, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce a comprehensive anthology. Even if anthologies continue expanding to include not only more texts but more culturally diverse texts, can teachers reasonably be expected to develop the expertise to teach such a vast amount of information? In this sense, The Heath Anthology is a carefully crafted truce between a 30,000-page anthology in ten volumes and the balkanization of American literature anthologies into a series of multiple anthologies representing distinct subsections of American literature. This has made The Heath Anthology an optimal choice for the summer institute at UCSB--not because it provides an anthology to end all anthologies but because it opens an anthological Pandora's box: it exposes and explores the process of canon formation and the theoretical concepts through which canons are constructed as historically contingent constructions instead of trying to obscure or naturalize the process of canon formation. In this sense it functions as a broadly conceived resource that can assist scholars in constructing their own sense of the American literary canon, even if it needs to be supplemented by additional resources more specifically adapted for particular contexts. It is my hope both that international scholars can gain more access to resources, like The Heath Anthology and the summer institute at UCSB, which can help them in this process, and that American scholars can receive greater exposure to the kinds of alternative American literary canons that international scholars will construct with these resources.

Robert Bennett is a graduate student in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he is writing a dissertation on contemporary American and postcolonial literature.

 


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