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Waiting for the word

  • The big stack
    The big stack  Henry Hart displays his copy of the thousands of pages that make up his anthology manuscript. Photo by Joseph McClain  
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Henry Hart nods wryly at the paper-clamp-studded stack of manila folders, nearly a foot thick, sitting on the floor of his Tucker Hall office.

“That’s all of it, down there,” he said. “The anthology is supposed to be about 1,200 pages long. That’s the whole manuscript, with my introductions, photocopies of different texts—plays, poems, short stories, essays and whatnot.”

The manuscript represents an anthology of American literature following World War II—and also more than two years of work for Hart, professor of English at William & Mary. His manuscript is the last in an omnibus series of five volumes that together were to comprise the Thomson Anthology of American Literature. Publication of the entire anthology is being held in abeyance in the wake of a series of corporate takeovers in the publishing world.

“Thomson was sold. Another division, Wadsworth, took it over,” Hart explained, and so the Thomson Anthology simply became the Wadsworth Anthology. “The anthThe anthology booklets are available on Amazon.comology was supposed to be published in 2008. But then we found out the umbrella company, Cengage—which owns Wadsworth—had just bought the college division of the publishing company Houghton Mifflin.”

Watching the anthology market

At the time of the acquisition, Houghton Mifflin was just coming out with a new edition of the Heath Anthology of American Literature. “As a result, Cengage told Wadsworth that it couldn’t come out with our anthology,” he said. “I think Cengage believed that two anthologies would overload the market.”

But the project is not quite dead. Hart has sent photocopies of his foot-high manuscript off for typesetting: “They hired typists to type all of that stuff into computers,” he said. “I assume that my volume, along with all the other volumes, are in computers, waiting to be published.”

To keep the project alive, Hart said the director of the Wadsworth team came up with an idea to use an organizational element of the anthology as a marketing device. Early in the process, the general editor of the anthology, Jay Parini of Middlebury College, suggested that the anthologists take dead aim at the needs of literature instructors by preparing thematic sections.

“Jay basically started off by saying that we should have anthologies that collect a lot of the important texts from the different periods, and that we should also have sections that are organized around topics that professors and students like to discuss in class,” Hart said. “These are the hot-button topics: gender, race, religion and spirituality, war and violence, that sort of thing. We thought that professors could go right to those sections and use those sections in class discussions.”

Set out the hors d'oeuvres

While the anthology team was waiting for the corporate go-ahead for the whole project, they decided to put out a series of booklets centered around the thematic sections. Hart said the idea was for the booklets to serve as “appetizers,” with hopes that they would whet the academic market’s appetite and nudge the anthology closer to publication.

The Wadsworth Themes in American Literature Series includes five pamphlets extracted from Hart’s post-World War II volume. Their titles are:

  • Race and Ethnicity in the Melting Pot

  • Class Conflicts and the American Dream

  • Exploring Gender and Sexual Norms

  • Witnessing War

  • Religion and Spirituality.

Each pamphlet is about 70 pages; each contains 10 or so short works or excerpts. There is also a common preface, giving an overview of the entire series of 21 booklets. Hart has written an introduction to each booklet, beginning the thematic exploration that will be fleshed out in papers and class discussion.

Not just poems and short stories

Many of the texts Hart chose for the booklets (and in the anthology) are not necessarily “literary” in nature and include essays, speeches and even journalism. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is included, as is “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech from Malcolm X. Novelist Gore Vidal is represented by his anti-anti-gay/anti-anti-Semitic nonfiction essay “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star.” Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson makes the cut, with a slice of post-9/11 apocalypticism that includes a phone call from Johnny Depp and a frenzied trip outside the house to fire a shotgun at an almost certainly imaginary intruder near the gas tank. It reads, presciently, like those post-Katrina blog entries.

“That’s what the editors wanted us to include,” Hart said, “not only poems and short stories, but also some chapters of novels, some non-fiction essays.”

Some of Hart’s selections are to be expected—Tim O’Brien is in Witnessing War and sections of Robert Bly’s Iron John are part of Exploring Gender and Sexual Norms—but there are a number of interesting thematic juxtapositions among the booklets. For instance the Martin Luther King and the Malcolm X speeches are in different booklets. The Malcolm X oration is in Race and Ethnicity in the Melting Pot; King’s is in Class Conflicts and the American Dream.

An eye to on-line

Hart says the booklets are being sold—they’re on—and he has heard from professors who are using them. The booklets are supported by an on-line resource center, accessible though an access code. The Internet is becoming a classroom staple: Hart says that when he calls on a student to read a poem in class, sometimes the student Googles the work on a laptop rather than thumb through a print anthology.

“I also know that printed texts are going the way of the dinosaurs,” he said. “One of the plans of the publisher is to have an online version of the anthology. Perhaps they won’t go ahead with the print version, but maybe they’ll go ahead with an online version. At this point, I’m really not sure.”

Little to do…but wait

For now, there’s little that Hart can do other than trade snippets of news with the editors of the other volumes, hope the “appetizer” booklets do their job, and continue to wait for word from the project’s director.

“I really do hope that the anthology will go forward,” Hart said. “But I’m fatalistic about it. Because of the financial crisis, I know that this is a terrible time for the publishing business.”