The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an anthology of English literature published by the W. W. Norton & Company, one of several such compendiums. First published in 1962, it has gone through ten editions; as of 2006 there are over eight million copies in print, making it the publisher’s best-selling anthology.
M. H. Abrams, a critic and scholar of Romanticism, served as General Editor for its first seven editions, before handing the job to Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor. The anthology provides an overview of poetry, drama, prose fiction, essays, and letters from Beowulf to the beginning of the 21st century.
The first edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, printed in 1962, comprised two volumes. Also printed in 1962 was a single-volume derivative edition, called The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors Edition, which contained reprintings with some additions and changes including 28 of the major authors appearing in the original edition.
The seventh edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature comprises six volumes, sold in two sets of three. The first set includes the volumes “The Middle Ages”, “The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century”, and “Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”; the second set includes “The Romantic Period”,
“The Victorian Age”, and “The Twentieth Century and After”. The writings are arranged by author, with each author presented chronologically by date of birth. Historical and biographical information is provided in a series of headnotes for each author and in introductions for each of the time periods.
Within this structure, the anthology incorporates a number of thematically linked “clusters” of texts pertaining to significant contemporary concerns. For example, “The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century” contains four such clusters under the headings, “Literature of The Sacred”, “The Wider World”, “The Science of Self and World”, and “Voices of the War”.
The first of these includes four contemporary English translations of an identical passage from the Bible, those of William Tyndale, the Geneva Bible, the Douay–Rheims Version,
and the Authorized (King James) Version; selections from the writings of influential Protestant thinkers of the period, including Tyndale, John Calvin, Anne Askew, John Foxe and Richard Hooker; as well as selections from the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies.
The seventh edition was also sold in two volumes, which simply compressed six eras into two larger volumes, each volume comprising three eras. Volume 1 comprised the selection of literature from “‘The Middle Ages” to the “English Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”, while Volume 2 included the selection of literature from “The Romantic Period” to “The Twentieth Century and After”.
Another option was the “Major Authors” edition. Compressed into the single volume was a selection of major authors of each period, from the anonymous author of Beowulf to J. M. Coetzee.
The ninth edition continues to be sold in the same format as the eighth edition.
The tenth edition of the anthology went on sale in June 2018 and has continued to be sold in the same format as its two prior editions, while adding a host of new writers to its already substantially eclectic range.
Published in 1962, the first edition of Norton Anthology was based on an English literature survey course Abrams and fellow editor David Daiches taught at Cornell University. The anthology underwent periodic revisions every few years. The fifth edition in 1986 included the addition of the full texts of James Joyce’s “The Dead” and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The sixth edition, published in 1993, included Nadine Gordimer and Fleur Adcock. The seventh edition added Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart.
Greenblatt joined the editorial team during the 1990s: “When Norton asked Greenblatt—who was already editor of ‘The Norton Shakespeare’—to join the team as Abrams’s deputy in the mid-90s, Abrams said he was initially skeptical because of their different critical approaches, but quickly came around. The two had first met in the 80s, when they once delivered opposing lectures.
‘It was great fun,’ Abrams said. ‘He always claimed that I bent his sword. I always claimed he had the better, not of the argument, but of the rhetoric of the argument.'” Another addition has been an increase in women writers: “The new edition, Greenblatt said, includes 68 women writers, more than eight times as many as in the first edition.”
The ninth edition was released in 2012, marking 50 years of the anthology’s existence.
The 1970s saw the emergence of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature; its editorial team included leading scholars Harold Bloom, Frank Kermode, and Lionel Trilling. It was discontinued. Bloom, a former student of Abrams’, noted: “We were defeated in battle.”
The Longman Anthology of British Literature is also a competitor. Of this relationship, Joyce Jensen of The New York Times wrote in 1999, “The first stone in the war between Longman and W. W. Norton, the David and Goliath of the anthology publishing world, has been cast.
With the recent publication of The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Longman has mounted a challenge to Norton to become the literary anthology of choice in colleges and universities around the country.” Longman Anthology editor David Damrosch commented on the seventh edition of The Norton Anthology, arguing:
Though I could wish that the new edition of the Norton had reflected more independent thought and less reactive borrowing of the most visible innovations of our table of contents, I am very glad that Norton has now also adopted the six-volume format.
Then again, perhaps the Norton hasn’t simply been imitating us in its rapid inclusions of Marie de France, Hogarth, The Beggar’s Opera, Frankenstein, and a range of new context groupings whose topics track ours with what may only appear to be beagle-like devotion. The Septuagint was produced by independent translators whose versions all came out alike, and this history may have repeated itself here.
The Norton Anthology responded that:
The new Norton is not (as Longman personnel have charged) simply an attempt to copy Longman… Norton has defined its scope by uniting works whose common bond is the English language, claiming that a shared vocabulary is essential to cultural unity.
Independent Canadian publisher Broadview Press also offers a six-volume anthology of British literature that competes with the Norton and Longman anthologies, and a two-volume Concise Edition that competes with Norton’s two-volume Major Authors Edition and Longman’s two-volume Masters of British Literature.
The editorial team for The Broadview Anthology of British Literature includes leading scholars such as Kate Flint, Jerome J. McGann, and Anne Lake Prescott and has in general been very well received, though its sales have yet to match those of the competitors from the two larger publishers.
In 2006, Rachel Donadio of The New York Times stated: “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.”
Sarah A. Kelen summarizes the changes to the NAEL’s inclusions of medieval literature through successive editions, demonstrating the way the Anthology’s contents reflect contemporary scholarship.
Sean Shesgreen, an English professor at Northern Illinois University, published a critical history of the anthology in the Winter 2009 issue of Critical Inquiry, based on interviews with Abrams and examinations of the editor’s NAEL files. Norton president Drake McFeely forcefully denounced the article in a January 23, 2009 story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Preface to the Eighth Edition
The outpouring of English literature overflows all boundaries, including the capacious boundaries of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. But these pages manage to contain many of the most remarkable works written in English during centuries of restless creative effort. We have included epic poems and short lyrics;
love songs and satires; tragedies and comedies written for performance on the commercial stage, and private meditations meant to be perused in silence; prayers, popular ballads, prophecies, ecstatic visions, erotic fantasies, sermons, short stories, letters in verse and prose, critical essays, polemical tracts, several entire novels, and a great deal more.
Such works generally form the core of courses that are designed to introduce students to English literature, with its history not only of gradual development, continuity, and dense internal echoes, but also of sudden change and startling innovation.
One of the joys of literature in English is its spectacular abundance. Even within the geographical confines of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, where the majority of texts brought together in this collection originated, one can find more than enough distinguished and exciting works to fill the pages of this anthology many times over.
The abundance is all the greater if one takes, as the editors of these volumes do, a broad understanding of the term literature. In the course of several centuries, the meaning of the term has shifted from the whole body of writing produced in a particular language to a subset of that writing consisting of works that claim special attention because of their unusual formal beauty or expressive power.
Certain literary works, arousing enduring admiration, have achieved sufficient prominence to serve as widespread models for other writers and thus to constitute something approximating a canon. But just as in English-speaking countries there have never been academies empowered to regulate the use of language, so too there have never been firmly settled guidelines for canonizing particular texts.
Any individual text’s claim to attention is subject to constant debate and revision; established texts are jostled both by new arrivals and by previously neglected claimants; and the boundaries between the literary and whatever is thought to be “nonliterary” are constantly challenged and redrawn.
The heart of this collection consists of poems, plays, and prose fiction, but, like the language in which they are written, these categories are themselves products of ongoing historical transformations,
and we have included many texts that call into question any conception of literature as only a limited set of particular kinds of writing. English literature as a field arouses not a sense of order but what Yeats calls “the emotion of multitude.”
Following the lead of most college courses, we have separated off, on pragmatic grounds, English literature from American literature, but, in keeping with the multinational, multicultural, and hugely expansive character of the language, we have incorporated, particularly for the modern period, a substantial number of texts by authors from other countries.
This border-crossing is not a phenomenon of modernity only. It is fitting that among the first works here is Beowulf, a powerful epic written in the Germanic language known as Old English about a singularly restless Scandinavian hero. Beowulf’s remarkable translator in The Norton Anthology of English Literature,
Seamus Heaney, is one of the great contemporary masters of English literature he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995—but it would be potentially misleading to call him an “English poet” for he was born in Northern Ireland and is not in fact English. It would be still more misleading to call him a “British poet,”
as if the British Empire were the most salient fact about the language he speaks and writes in or the culture by which he was shaped. What matters is that the language in which Heaney writes is English, and this fact links him powerfully with the authors assembled in these volumes, a linguistic community that stubbornly refuses to fit comfortably within any firm geographical or ethnic or national boundaries.
So too, to glance at other authors and writings in the anthology, in the sixteenth century William Tyndale, in exile in the Low Countries and inspired by German religious reformers, translated the New Testament from Greek and thereby changed the course of the English language; in the seventeenth century Aphra Behn deeply touched her readers with a story that moves from Africa,
where its hero is born, to South America, where Behn herself may have witnessed some of the tragic events she describes; and early in the twentieth century Joseph Conrad, born in Ukraine of Polish parents, wrote in eloquent English a celebrated novella whose vision of European empire was trenchantly challenged at the century’s end by the Nigerian-born writer in English, Chinua Achebe.
A vital literary culture is always on the move. This principle was the watchword of M. H. Abrams, the distinguished literary critic who first conceived The Norton Anthology of English Literature, brought together the original team of editors, and, with characteristic insight, diplomacy, and humor, oversaw seven editions and graciously offered counsel on this eighth edition.
Abrams wisely understood that the dense continuities that underlie literary performance are perpetually challenged and revitalized by innovation. He understood too that new scholarly discoveries and the shifting interests of readers constantly alter the landscape of literary history. Hence from the start he foresaw that,
if the anthology were to be successful, it would have to undergo a process of periodic revision and reselection, an ambitious enterprise that would draw upon the energy and ideas of new editors brought in to work with the seasoned team.
The Eighth Edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature represents the most thoroughgoing instance in its long publishing history of this generational renewal. Across the whole chronological breadth of the volumes, new editors joined forces with the existing editors in a spirit of close collaboration.
The revitalized team has considered afresh each of the selections and rethought all the other myriad aspects of the anthology. In doing so, we have, as in past years, profited from a remarkable flow of voluntary corrections and suggestions proposed by teachers, as well as students, who view the anthology with a loyal but critical eye.
Moreover, we have again solicited and received detailed information on the works actually assigned, proposals for deletions and additions, and suggestions for improving the editorial matter, from overtwo hundred reviewers from around the world, almost all of them teachers who use the book in a course.
The active participation of an engaged and dedicated community of readers has been crucial as the editors of the Norton Anthology grapple with the task of retaining (and indeed strengthening) the selection of more traditional texts even while adding many texts that reflect the transformation and expansion of the field of English studies.
The great challenge (and therefore the interest) of the task is linked to the space constraints that even these hefty volumes must observe. The virtually limitless resources of the anthology’s Web site make at least some of the difficult choices less vexing, but the editorial team kept clearly in view the central importance in the classroom of the printed pages.
The final decisions on what to include were made by the editors, but we were immeasurably assisted by our ongoing collaboration with teachers and students.