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projects: notable authors

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Saved by Mark Gaipa
on October 17, 2010 at 10:27:07 pm


Ideas for working with the Notable Authors & Texts Index


Part 1: Doing things with canonical authors/texts


The MJP (anti-) anthology. Because most of the authors in the Notable Authors and Texts Index have been published in various recent anthologies, we might think of the list as an anthology (or mega-anthology) of key authors and texts in the MJP archives. But there’s this fundamental difference: anthologies extract texts from their original publishing contexts and place them in the neighborhood of other such texts, whereas the MJP archive returns these texts to what is often their original publishing context. In a way, then, the MJP anthology is also an anti-anthology, since it reverses the work (of decontextualization and dehistoricization) performed by anthologies. 


For this reason, the index can help foreground the process and effects of anthologization that may otherwise be invisible to students. Here are some ways to address this topic:


Idea 1. How does anthologization affect the texts anthologized?  You can use the author/text index and the MJP archives to help students recover what has been filtered from the anthologies—and reflect upon the way our perception of a text changes when it’s been anthologized. Select a poem from the index that appears in an popular anthology (ideally, one that students already have available to them in class), and then have students compare how the text appears in the anthology with how it appears in the journal from the MJP archive, while addressing such concerns/questions as these:

  • Context 1: other poems by the same author. If the poem appears in the journal among other poems by the same author that don't also appear in the anthology, you can discuss what makes the anthologized poem more worthy of anthologization than the non-anthologized poems. Could/should any of these other poems from the journal be anthologized instead? How would that change our view of the poet? Likewise, we can also compare the poet's other poems from the journal (which were likely written about the same time) with the other poems by the poet that accompany it in the anthology (which may have been written over the span of a lifetime). What impression of the poet do we get from either set of texts? Do we prefer one version of the poet over the other?
  • Context 2: texts by other authors. We can also compare the poet's neighbors in the journal with his/her immediate neighbors in the anthology: are they the same people (i.e., have other authors in the journal also been anthologized?) or perhaps the same kind of people? How does our understanding of the poet and the poet's works change when read in light of one poetic/literary neighborhood or the other?
  • Context 3: local vs. literary history. We can pull back even further from the poem and read it in light of anything that appears in the journal (on the one hand) vs. the full arc of literary history that is represented by the anthology (on the other hand). In the first case, the context of the poem includes an assortment of texts, images, ideas, and events that likely sprung from a very specific moment in time; in the other, the context is more narrowly defined by some notion of literature while ranging across a much longer span of time. So how does the poem and its poet appear differently when we move between the two contexts? Does the poem seem to resonate with any events, values, or concerns represented elsewhere in the journal? What happens to those resonances when the poem is read against the wider arc of the anthology's representation of literary history? Conversely, what role does the poet (and the poem) seem to play in the story of literary history that the anthology is trying to tell? And can we still discern those aspects of the poet/poem in the journal?


Idea 2. From then to now: examining the publishing history of an anthologized text.  You might assign students to find out how a poem that first appeared in an MJP magazine eventually wound up in an anthology. Students can research how the poem was selected, over time, to appear in various publications and other anthologies, and they may also trace out the rising popularity of the poem by researching the evolving criticism of it and its author. Then have students discuss whether this history of the poem’s reception reveals anything about its significance that is not apparent in either the original magazine or the anthology: e.g., how has the poem been valued, and what does that reading of the text say about the poet and his/her poetry or career?


Idea 3. Building a better anthology (perhaps).  Have students select four poems in the anthology by different authors from about the same period, and then have them select four different poems by the same authors from the MJP journals that don't appear in the anthology but seem to them to have real merit. Then ask them to debate whether or not each selected poem should replace the corresponding poem for that poet in the anthology. What different picture of poetry for that period arises if we switched all four poems in the anthology?


Variation on the above: Have students replace four of the authors (and their poems) in the anthology with four other poets (and an equal number of poems) from the MJP archive who were writing at about the same time but have been left out of the anthology. Then ask them to defend their choices, explaining the difference these new poets and poems make and why the change is an improvement.


Idea 4. Style: individual or communal? To what extent is the style of a poet an individual creation (or the expression of personal genius), and to what extent is it instead a product of the literary context in which he or she lived?  Have students debate this question by selecting from the class's anthology a poet whose work shows up in MJP journals, and then see if they can find in those journals historical, social, or literary "sources" for the poet's work or for the kind of poetry s/he typically writes. Also ask them to look in those magazines for examples of poetry by other poets that seem to resemble the style (or stance, or subject matter) of the poet in the anthology. Then discuss whether the anthology disposes us to see poets' work as the original product of individual genius by omitting other writers from the period who may have been working in a similar vein.


Idea 5. Recovering repressed variety #1: discrepancies between versions of the same text.  It may come as a surprise to students that alternative versions exist of the texts printed in their anthology. If an anthologized text appears in one of the MJP journals, it’s almost always different in some way—sometimes, in startling ways. For such texts in the MJP archive, you might check the teaching pages for their authors, as we’ve tried to call attention there to these discrepancies (which may make it easier to start comparing the two versions). Here are some questions for thinking through those discrepancies:

  • How important are the differences between the two versions of the text? Do they strike you as incidental or essential to the composition of the text?  Is there any difference that seems to strongly change the meaning or effect of the text?
  • What do you think explains the differences between the two texts? (Students will probably have to conduct research into the bibliographical history of the text to test their surmises.)
  • Which version of the text do like more? Why?
  • What assumptions or values do you think are expressed by the author's decision to change the text?
  • What scholarly values are at working in the decision by the anthology's editor to publish one version instead of the other?


Idea 6. Recovering repressed variety #2: literary typecasting in anthologies. Certainly authors are selected to appear in anthologies because of their perceived merit and importance. But an equally significant concern is that the authors and their writing fit a particular literary role or vision the anthologists have of them, resulting perhaps in the typecasting (or stereotyping) of the authors and the homogenizing of their work. As Cary Nelson observes, "The tendency to identify writers with only one genre regularly draws attention away from some of their work, even with 'major' authors" (Repression and Recovery 83).


The MJP archives allow us to test this idea, and figure out what role an anthology may have cast authors into, since the original journals in which the authors published likely contain not only more of the author's texts but also a wider variety of his/her modes of writing. Accordingly:

  • Ask students to select a writer from the class anthology and then search for other works by him/her in the MJP archive. (Some authors you may want students to consider: John Galsworthy, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound.)
  • Then ask them to record the kinds of writing that appear in the magazines as compared to the anthology, and to read the author's magazine writings alongside his/her anthologized writings. Do the texts in the magazine change in any way how they view the author? What different sides of the author do they see there that aren't apparent in the anthology?
  • Finally, ask students to speculate about why these different kinds of writing (or other sides of the author) were not represented in the anthology. What is the implicit role he or she plays there, and do these other works not fit that identity?  Also, what is the wider story, in the literary history of the period, that the author, cast in this role, helps to tell?



Part 2: Doing things with non-canonical (or minor, or neglected) authors/texts


Cary Nelson, in arguing against the repressive nature of anthologies, discusses (and defends) "minor literature"—literature that has been excluded from the canon of major authors—this way:


when such literature is read instead of being ignored, the category of minor literature becomes genuinely interesting. Yet until recently neither our teaching nor our writing brought this to pass very often. For the canon keeps minor literature elsewhere, outside textbooks, outside the textual domain of elaborate close readings. Set against literature at its most prestigious, minor literature provokes (and sometimes celebrates) a series of paradoxes: literature before literature, literature that is less than literature, literature that is unbecoming to literature, literature that has ceased to be literature. . . . When we read marginal works so as to understand major ones, to reconstruct historical contexts, we intrude a contaminating social materiality into the imaginative domain of literariness. Minor literature is thus an epistemological threat to the socially constructed transcendence of literary excellence. (Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945, 38-39)


And he goes on to say this:


The canon establishes and limits what would otherwise be the infinitely undecidable textual base of literary history, what has been called the “potential canon”—a universe of writing in which not only the quality of literary works but also the validity of the concept of literariness is at risk—a vast body of writing more likely to provoke anxiety than curiosity among literary academics. (53)


The MJP archives can help reverse this longstanding trend of exclusion, in academia, by making so-called minor literature readily available to scholars and students, who will find it, in the journals, published side-by-side with the major anthologized work of major authors.


Idea 1. Testing claims about minor literature. Students might test some of Nelson's claims above on actual instances of "minor literature" they find in the MJP archive:

  • Is this instance of minor literature capable of creating anxiety for the standard academic study of literature, by putting at risk "the quality of literary works" found in anthologies as well as "the validity of the concept of literariness"? How exactly might that work? Can students argue for the quality and literariness of this excluded (or overlooked) text? Perhaps have them conduct a close-reading of it: what happens? How easy or hard is that? Can they do the same for other minor literature in the magazines?
  • Does this piece of minor literature, set beside an anthologized work, provoke any of the paradoxes Nelson mentions: "literature before literature, literature that is less than literature, literature that is unbecoming to literature, literature that has ceased to be literature"? Does the text confirm the idea of stable literary value or rather undermine it? In what ways might the text embody the "social materiality" that threatens the "transcendence of literary excellence" assigned to works in the anthology?


Idea 2. Contextualizing the "failure" of minor literature.  Nelson suggests that we might appreciate minor literature this way:


When literature is provisionally contextualized—both within its own broader history and within American social history as a whole—some of the more well-known failures in modern poetry become as interesting as the established successes, and some nearly forgotten poets become genuinely exciting again. Indeed, we need to stop thinking of artistic failure as a statement only about individual tragedy or the weaknesses and limitations of individual character and begin to see it as culturally driven, as a complex reflection of social and historical contradictions. (69)


Select two authors from MJP archives who wrote at about the same time—one author who is now widely anthologized, and the other who is not. Then have students compare samples of their writing from the magazines, and try to explain the eventual success of one author and the relative "failure" of other, not only in terms of the strength or weakness of their writing but also, as Nelson suggests, in terms of wider "culturally driven" forces. When we contextualize these authors and their work, is there anything in the "broader history" that may have supported the fortune of one and not the other?  Part of their investigation may involve researching early and later accounts of the two authors’ works by critics and scholars: are they treating the two figures differently and, if so, why?


Idea 3. From individual to community. (Here's a variation on idea 4 from part 1 above.) Although we’re liable to regard the works of anthologized modern poets as heroic acts of individual genius, Nelson suggests we instead explore their work from the perspective of the broader poetic community in which those poets participated, alongside "lesser" talents:


Most poets work within a contextualized sense of what is possible rhetorically: what innovations are made available to them by the work of their contemporaries; what tendencies are to be emulated, transformed, or resisted; what issues it seems necessary (or unimaginable) to address; what cultural roles have been won over or lost for poetry. If we want to restore a more full awareness of the discourses at work in this period, we need to regain a broader sense of the range of poets publishing in books, journals, and newspapers. New discursive tendencies—like imagism, the modernist experiments with verbal collage, or the poetry of minority resistance and cultural self-definition—are often established by a considerable number of poets, only a few of whom may survive the canon’s restrictive vision. As a result, we lose the complex play of similarity and difference, stimulation and competition, that shapes the discursive options for poets. (70-71)


Students may try to recover that lost community, and lost communal discourse, this way:

  • Have students select a famous anthologized text that fits one of the categories Nelson mentions above: "imagism," "the modernist experiments with verbal collage," or "the poetry of minority resistance and cultural self-definition."
  • Then ask them to look in the MJP archives for other poets from the same period—possible colleagues or competitors of the first poet they selected—who seem to be doing something similar in their poems.
  • Then have them compare and contrast a handful of these poets’ poems to see if they can begin to flesh out the new poetic discourse that all of these poets were exploring: "the complex play of similarity and difference, stimulation and competition, that shapes the discursive options for poets." Can they discern any of the rhetorical possibilities these poets were working with at this time: "what innovations are made available to them by the work of their contemporaries; what tendencies are to be emulated, transformed, or resisted; what issues it seems necessary (or unimaginable) to address; what cultural roles have been won over or lost for poetry"?
  • Finally, once they have articulated some sense of the wider community and poetic discourse that all of these poets drew from and contributed to, have them consider why this one poem survived into posterity and the others did not?

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