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

Tomorrow the World

by Paul Lauter
(with thanks to Doris and Annie)



I gave the talk that follows at the 1996 American Literature Section (ALS) meeting at the MLA convention. I believe the subject for the ALS was something like "American Literature in the 21st Century," an earnest, if not an altogether gloomy, topic. So I thought a little humor might fit the bill. But I was startled to be asked, twice, after the session whether I had changed my political outlook. I think not, but finally I must leave to my readers the answer to that question.


It is late in the year 2025, and we are hard at work preparing for the publication of the tenth edition of The Heath Anthology of Literatures in America. I am myself waltzing along toward age 94 and looking forward to this, my 65th Modern Language Association convention. I'm especially happy at the prospect of this convention, partly because I have just been nominated, for the first time, to succeed Herschel Parker as chair of the American Literatures Section, but mainly because the meeting is to be held in Barbados--or at least the English sections. The foreign language groups, now called OTE (Other Than English), have chosen to convene in Martinique.

The new edition of The Heath will, of course, not be put out on paper, except for a few display copies, whose 12,000 or so pages, like Webster's dictionaries, are Morocco bound. Like the last few editions, the tenth will be available in electronic form. Sitting at his or her desk, the professor will decide which texts the students are to read--or at least be able to download. And working at their machines or at E-Books, Inc., students will dutifully utilize coded passwords tied to their text deposits to acquire their readings at so much per page. This method helps, of course, to ensure that students at least obtain the texts, since they must do so for their names to continue registering on the instructor's electronic grade book.

We will offer a large, but still limited, number of texts for use. The limitation no longer has to do with copyright, for the electronic system can now easily dispense royalties to each author whose work remains protected and is used. In fact, since the reappropriation of copyrights for works deemed by the Congress to be American "classics," royalties will also be collected in this manner for these works and deposited in the national treasury to help offset the costs of administering rating codes for Web sites and other forms of interactive video. No, the limitation on available texts came about in reaction to the outcry against the eighth edition, for which we attempted to provide virtually every work by virtually every modestly known American writer. Users were outraged. We had left them far too much to decide; didn't we think they had anything better to do with their time? Where were our standards? Not to speak of our compassion for the overworked instructor? The protests were loud and determined, and we were quick once again to take up the anthologists' burden.

A sigh of relief was heard around the world. For, needless to say, Literatures in America anthologies had by then become a worldwide commodity. They were, we liked to think, responding to what had become a world wide need. For virtually everywhere in the world, English was now an educational requirement. That had come about gradually at first, as the Internet had spread and, of course, with it English as the language of exchange. And then the Congress--the same one, in fact, that had reappropriated the American "classics"--had decided that it would be illegal for American businesses to conduct their transactions in any language but English. That seemed perfectly reasonable, they maintained, since something like 75 percent of the wealth was by then concentrated in the United States and, moreover, Americans had never been very good at learning foreign tongues. So English was now a worldwide requirement--except in France, of course--and that had increasingly meant American English, since hardly anyone spoke like John Major used to speak. Studying American English meant studying American culture, and that in turn led at least the more industrious students to study actual writing. And there was our market: the world. It was, for me, the fulfillment of a vision first evoked in 1996 when a friend had discovered--this actually happened--35 sets of The Heath Anthology in use in Kazakhstan.

To be sure, our menu was not the same for every part of the world--a fact not maintained secretively, but not widely advertised either. That had turned out to be as necessary for an anthology as it was for McDonald's to avoid pork in Indonesia and beef in India. Indeed, one of our major tasks as editors was now to construct not only the basic collection, but also these distinct menus, differentiated by region. To be sure, a certain core for the book--if one could continue to call it a book--had been settled by Congressional mandate; the Bill Bennett Bill, as it was called, had provided that certain works had to be included--many of them by Melville and James Dickey--to make such an anthology eligible for international distribution. Even so, that left us with a good deal of scope in selection, and the contest for markets with competing models, including a Japanese update of what had once been the Norton Anthology, often came down to whose menus best caught the desires of teachers for a certain novelty, together with their generally stronger wish not to have to take on too much that was really new.

Responsibly constructing these different menus had required a significant expansion of our editorial board; the process had not been without its tensions, I can assure you. The crisis of representation, as it had once been called, now flourished globally. When we had assembled our first editorial board, it had all seemed simple: balance women and men, experts in minority literatures with whites. That was, then, progress, for no specialist in minority literatures, nor indeed a minority person, and barely one or two women, had ever been among the editors of such anthologies. Hybridity, alas, soon undermined such easy categories. Coco Fusco had cited the absence of Cuban Jewish Americans--or perhaps it had been Jewish Cuban Americans. At any rate, the need for distinct international menus introduced an entirely new dimension, based on the premise, theoretically indisputable, that American texts, images, and ideas would be differently received, appropriated, and deployed in different cultures. Unquestionable. But since an editorial board of more than 300 nationalities--even omitting the large number of distinct cultures in New Guinea--seemed hard to manage, the issue came down to who might speak for whom, especially on matters of reception, partiality, and prohibition. One wished not to lose the Singapore market, but could Singapore speak for Malaysia? Or Beir Zeit, as it claimed, for Cairo? To be short, I often found myself on the edge of deciding to take over as editor-for-life, after all not an unusual move in this postdemocracy world.

However that might be, it was certain that women writers--and even women poets--represented an expanded portion of our menus, except for those in a few places like Afghanistan and Tibet. Some believe that trend began when the Harriet Beecher Stowe Foundation began to offer its annual Jane Smiley prize for contributions to feminist writing. Others think it is related to the increasing proportion of women teachers of language and literature, a development pioneered in places like Indonesia and Korea. For my own part, I suspect a significant moment in this development was Madonna's decision, around the turn of the century, to star in a miniseries of Louisa May Alcott thrillers. At any rate, the curve of attention to women writers rose markedly--except, as I say, in certain backward places--even as the last century ended. Writers like Frances Osgood and Sarah Piatt began to be taught regularly along with Poe and Dickinson, and the 19th-Century American Women Writers Study Group, despite its lack of a euphonious acronym, became the model for such societies across the globe--just as, 100 years before, women's literary clubs in New York and Boston had summoned up sister organizations from Quincy, Illinois, to Amarillo, Texas.

That was one major force in the construction of our menus. Hybridity provided another. This came about, I suspect, when Gloria Anzaldúa replaced Stanley Fish at the top of graduate school reading lists. Borders became all the rage. Especially when President Gingrich, I think it was, ceded El Paso back to Mexico--because, some cynics said, Democrats were threatening to retake the government of Texas. Anyway, as the study of borderlands became reified-especially when Madonna played opposite Dennis Rodman in a remake of Viva Zapata--texts that enabled border study leaped into prominence. Sandra Cisneros's agent then began to ask two dollars a word instead of one dollar, which nicely balanced out the descent of the most expensive items--T. S. Eliot and Clara Weatherwax--into the public domain; Rolando Hinojosa won a Pulitzer to go with his Casa de las Americas prize, which meant he was sold at more than Borders; and we were able to publish four different versions of La Llorona, from Guatemala to Idaho in origin, and a selection of corridos that students were able to download complete with their musical settings, dance notations, and English subtitles--a couple of the real virtues of online delivery, by the way.

Our sheafs of working-class poetry had also expanded, thanks in no small part to the annual June Youngstown meetings on working-class studies. These had so evolved that the organizers had been able to buy the old Youngstown Sheet and Tube plant to turn into a theme park rivaling the first one of this sort created in 2001 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, by Michael Eisner of Disney and Lee Iacocca, then a Lehigh University trustee. The conference had begun featuring a series of read-ins staged at appropriate sites throughout the plant and enhanced by sound-and-light shows of pouring and fabricating steel. These, too, were downloadable--in rather reduced form, of course--and were particularly popular with kids who in an earlier generation would have been listening to Twisted Sister.

But of course, as you all know, the major component of our menus derived from the desire of teachers across the world to discover the sources of unity in America. The first wave of books promoting such themes in the mid-1990s had fallen flat; they expressed, as a writer in the New York Review of Books had commented, the angst of white male identity politics. But a decade later conditions had changed. Now it just so happens--not to harp on a theme--that that came about right after Madonna's greatest triumph: playing Eleanor Roosevelt in the theretofore hidden struggle to establish a United Nations against the real wishes of Sir Winston Churchill. Well, be that as it may. The result was a renewal of interest in Francis Scott Key, Washington Irving, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and, naturally, Jim Dickey. All of which helps explain the Congressional reappropriation I mentioned before of their and certain other copyrights. We were, I have to tell you, pretty angry about that when we were doing the sixth editionÉ but that's a whole different story. The problem in responding to the interest of unifiers, I always felt, was rather like the problem of finding poetry compatible with capitalism or a Republican version of high theory. There seems to be no necessary contradiction between good writing and right-wing ideology, but the stories always seemed to come out like a campaign biography for Lynne Cheney, and the poems like Rush Limbaugh in couplets. Still, we did what we could, mining Bennett's The Book of Virtues--a jolly task, that! And we ran in Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot together with some of Mike Gold's Jews Without Money, balanced excerpts from Theresa Cha's DICTEE with some of Syngman Rhee's autobiographical writing, and paired Helena Viramontes's prophetic "The Cariboo Cafe" with a bit of Dinesh D'Souza's autobiography, The Last Subaltern. Most important, of course, was the inclusion of a key chapter in Hawthorne's campaign biography of Franklin Pierce that, as was discovered about twenty years ago, turned out to allegorize their unconsummated college relationship.

Our biggest problem, as some of you may be aware, has become trying to bridge the widening gulf between literary study and American Studies. You will recall that in the fin de siècle years most English departments had recommitted themselves to the precedence of the close reading of classic literary texts. That had meant, to be sure, that English departments virtually disappeared at public universities outside North Carolina, but for the few majors who stayed the course, we agreed, it had been worth it after all. American Studies, on the other hand, growing monthly, more and more became a catchall for an enormous variety of cultural studies, of film, TV, posters, the college catalog--we even encouraged the use of our own ads, making the brochure covers of previous editions available on our Web site. Still it was hard for one book, even our Heath, dearest anthology of who can say how many and what kinds of literatures, our book--or nonbook if you will--to satisfy the needs of people in two increasingly disparate fields of study, especially now that almost every reputable college and university--apart from Columbia--had an American Studies department. So we have skated an often tenuous line between the explication de texte devotees and the "always historicize" crowd, and we continue to do toe loops along this divide. To one, we have offered the annual winner of the Helen Vendler poetry prize; to the other, the victor in the Don Pease field imaginary contest.

This contradiction may have caused us to lose some of the U.S. market to the collection called Classic American Literature, with its Congressional star of patriotic approval, its Lawrentian cachet--and its boast of having improved Lawrence's lineup by substituting for Lawrence's Dana, Sidney Lanier. Still, I think we have made up ground by our appeal to the world. Like Christmas in Israel, we have broken through the old borders of race, religion, or previous condition of adoption. Or, in the words of one of our commercials--not a very successful one, I have to admit:
From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We unfurl our country's culture
In its full diversity.


Well, such jingles helped prove that camp is one of the few commodities you cannot globalize. Nevertheless, the tenth edition will soon be out there in cyberspace, available to you and your students. But I do not want to end on a commercial note, even if "property" has now officially replaced "the pursuit of happiness" alongside "life" and "liberty" in our Declaration of Independence. I want, rather, simply to thank you for your adoptions, on behalf of the authors to thank you for their royalties, and most of all to thank you for helping us leap across that bridge to the 21st century.

 


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