When UCLA English Prof. William D. Schaefer first saw some of the authors included in the new "Heath Anthology of American Literature," he thought: "Who the hell are they?"
If Schaefer, former executive director of the national literary organization known as Modern Language Assn., had that reaction, most other scholars and students surely did too.
That's just fine with the editors of the mammoth and controversial anthology. Their goal was to rattle traditions and to show that there are more master writers in American literature than, as several professors jokingly put it, "15 dead white men and Emily Dickinson." As a result, the anthology has heated up a long-simmering debate central to the teaching profession: What should students read?
From the book's start, with ancient Native American creation myths, to its finish 5,550 pages later with modern Chicano poets, the two-volume Heath work seeks to dramatically broaden the so-called canon with an unprecedented amount of writings by women and minorities. It claims to do so without kicking out many classics, but it still offends traditionalists who allege that the project takes an affirmative-action approach to literature.
"On one extreme is a very conservative group saying we have a canon of great literature that shouldn't be altered," said an official at the New York-based Assn. of Departments of English, who requested anonymity. "On the other side are people who say the canon has to be updated constantly as part of the ongoing expansion of knowledge. And the sides are doing battle."
By their very aim to contain the best and most important writings, anthologies confer enormous authority and prestige on authors. For a poem or story to be included in a popular anthology for the first time means moving from the margin to the mainstream. Inclusion tells readers, in effect: This is a classic.
What's more, such survey books usually are used in required college freshman and sophomore courses. Some of those students will never take an English course again and others will start lifelong enthusiasms based on something in an anthology. That's why professors and critics argue so much about what should be in the books.
"We are trying to shed some light on the question of what's first rate," said Paul Smith, general acquisitions editor for D.C. Heath & Co., based in Lexington, Mass. "We are including writers who were not anthologized before, who may have been excluded in the past because of reasons of gender, race, class and politics, not necessarily quality."
Such concerns are part of the wider debate at many American universities and colleges on how curriculum should reflect the multiethnic nature of their student bodies and the world beyond the campus. Two years ago, Stanford University expanded its required freshman humanities course to include non-Western material, despite strong criticism from then Education Secretary William J. Bennett and other conservatives that the change would erode values of Western civilization.
While most anthologies begin with Pilgrim writings, the Heath starts with nearly 200 pages of works by Native Americans, Spanish explorers and French settlers before getting to John Smith and William Bradford. Slave spirituals, the \o7 corridos \f7 folk ballads of Mexican-Americans and early feminist manifestoes are presented alongside selections from the Federalist Papers, Henry David Thoreau's essays and short stories by Stephen Crane. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman are among the 275 authors represented, but so are Mourning Dove, the first Native American woman novelist, and contemporary Puerto Rican poet Victor Hernandez Cruz.
Critics complain that there is not enough of masters such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that many selections seem to have been chosen for their political rather than literary merits.
Slowly but surely, such traditionalists are losing the national fight over literary canon, both sides agree. Among the half-dozen best-selling anthologies, the trend over the last decade has been to broaden the study of American literature, first by adding women and black authors and, more recently, Latinos and Asians.
The dominant anthology is published by W. W. Norton & Co. in New York. Its third edition came out last year with 23 new writers, mainly women and minorities. A total Norton canon includes works by 180 authors contained in two volumes of 5,350 pages. Among the Norton additions are the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, an 18th-Century slave; parts of the American Indian classic "Black Elk Speaks," and a short story by Bobbie Ann Mason, a contemporary Southern woman.
Still, most scholars and rival publishers say nothing as dramatically inclusive as the Heath anthology has appeared before.