The Norton Anthology of English Literature

The Norton Anthology of English Literature
The cover of the eighth edition

The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an anthology of English literature published by the W. W. Norton & Company. It has gone through eight editions since its inception in 1962; it is the publisher's best-selling anthology, with some eight million copies in print.[1] The influential critic and scholar of Romanticism, M.H. Abrams, served as General Editor for the first seven editions of the anthology before handing the job to Stephen Greenblatt, a renowned Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor.

Spread across six volumes and divided into two sets, the anthology provides an overview of poetry, drama, prose fiction, essays, letters from Beowulf to the 21st century.



The eighth 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.


Published in 1962, the first edition of The Norton Anthology was based on an English literature survey course Abrams and fellow editor David Daiches taught at Cornell University.[2] The anthology underwent periodic revisions every few years. The fifth edition in 1986 included the addition of the full texts of Joyce's “The Dead” and 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-90's, Abrams said he was initially skeptical because of their different critical approaches, but quickly came around. The two had first met in the 80's, 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."[3] 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."[4]

Competing anthologies

The seventies 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.”[5]

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."[6] 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.1 (footnote) 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.[7]

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.[8]

Independent Canadian publisher Broadview Press also offers a 6 volume anthology of British literature that competes with the Norton and Longman anthologies, and a 2-volume Concise Edition that competes with Norton's 2-volume Major Authors Edition and Longman's 2-volume Masters of British Literature.[9] 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." [10]

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.[11]

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 (see "Further reading" below). Norton president Drake McFeely forcefully denounced the article in a January 23, 2009 story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.[12]


  1. ^ Donadio, Rachel, The New York Times, January 8, 2006, "Keeper of the Canon,"
  2. ^ The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., ed. Abrams et al., 1993, xxx
  3. ^ Donadio, Rachel, The New York Times, January 8, 2006, "Keeper of the Canon,"
  4. ^ Reich, David, Boston College Magazine, "Making the Cut in the Norton Anthology,"
  5. ^ Donadio, Rachel,The New York Times, January 8, 2006, "Keeper of the Canon,"
  6. ^ Jensen, Joyce, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 1999. “Think Tank; As Anthologies Duel, Women Gain Ground,”
  7. ^ David Damrosch, “Roundtable: The Mirror and the Window: Reflections on Anthology Construction,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture,1:1, 2001
  8. ^ Saupe, Karen, “Roundtable: Norton and Longman Travel Separate Roads,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture,1:1, 2001
  9. ^
  10. ^ Donadio, Rachel, "Keeper of the Canon," The New York Times, January 8, 2006, Keeper of the Canon
  11. ^ Kelen, Sarah A., Literature Compass 1:1, December, 2004, "Which Middle Ages? Literature Anthologies and Critical Ideologies,"
  12. ^ Ayoub, Nina C. "Aiming a Canon", The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(20), B17. Subscription-only web site.

Further reading

External links

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