Norton is Fifty Years Old

No, not Ed Norton but the infamous Norton Anthology of English Literature. This is the single book to which I attribute my failing eyesight and I still have nightmares recalling those hours of reading where the paper was so thin you could read the printing on the other side of the page, and given the inordinately small font used in the book to force as much reading as possible into a mere three trillion pages it was hard enough to read the front of the page.

What did I learn about English literature? Well, I wouldn’t be so silly as to say more than 99% of Americans (it may only be 97 or even 96%) but more than enough to allow me to be somewhat selective in what I read and studied in later years and courses. In other words, I had a good basic knowledge to build on and I owe it all the M. H. Abrams (one of my gods) and Norton publishing. As the years passed and my daughter became the far more astute scholar of literature, I noticed that Norton had added many more specific volumes to the original two volume Anthology (mine was hard bound since it hadn’t come out in paper yet). I even bought the Kid a copy of The Norton Anthology of Women Writers one Christmas. I’m not sure what the Anthology looks like today; I’m sure there has been some revision to better address the more prevalent literary topics, but I hope that it still helps to ground current and future English majors before they are let out to roam in the glut of contemporary writing that seems to maintain a focus in today’s colleges and universities.

Yes, I am an old-fashioned believer in core education. In my college a student wouldn’t be allowed any elective courses until they the student was at least an upperclassman and perhaps not even then.

My one concern which the Norton Anthology aided was that I had a low opinion of American Literature and successfully avoided reading the literature of my own country until I was looking forward to retirement. Now I have discovered some quite good examples of American Literature but I approach it as another country to add to my quest for good literature all over the globe. I might suggest that the designation English Literature is a major limitation to learning being perpetrated year after year in our colleges and universities.

It’s all literature!

I stood tip-toe on a little hill

Throughout my years of reading, teaching, discussing, appreciating literature I have tossed off a few pithy phrases that sometimes help to get the discussion going and sometimes shut it down and make immediate adversaries of everyone around me. I suppose it depends of the room I am playing at the time.

It’s All Fiction

This one I absolutely stand by—all writing is fiction—it may seem real but it is all filtered by the human imagination and intellect. People have argued that if history is fiction then the Holocaust didn’t happen. See the fallacy here? I didn’t say that the events in the history of the world were fiction, only that the writing about those events is fiction. All writers, whether they are involved with fiction or that bookstore categorization, non-fiction, select what they will write and how they will write it. Do you know they place Glenn Beck in the non-fiction shelves. That should tell you  … It’s all fiction!

All great English Literature is written by the Irish

This one has many exceptions but even so, think of the great writers of English Literature:  Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, Sean O’Casey, John M. Synge, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Brian O’Nolan, William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John Banville, George Berhard Shaw, Maria Edgeworth, George Moore, Charles Maturin, C. S. Lewis, Edna O’Brien, Bram Stoker, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, … and many more.

To be a great poet you have to either die of consumption or a venereal disease, preferably at a young age

This one shows my focus on the English Romantic poets as an undergraduate (I shifted to Restoration Drama in graduate school). I’m sure that the list of English poets who died of old age is quite impressive, but for a while there, I didn’t know if I should cough or just head for the opium den.

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Translations, Slang and Other Groovy Things

The subject comes up so often I have to apologize in advance if you’ve heard all my views on this subject before. Even so, it’s good to revisit old opinions with new brain cells.

The subject came up in an online reading group which specializes in reading French literature in translation, that a novel using slang or street speech cannot be read in translation without changing the essence of the novel from being French to being British or American or name-your-country. It was furthermore suggested that the era in which the translation was done might result in an inadvertent silliness when read today (highly dependent on the number of times the author writes “groovy”).

I contend that both suppositions are not well thought out. First the question of the argot being the essence of a country’s language and therefore vital to maintaining the, in this case, French-ness of the literary work and not transforming it into an American novel with French locales.

I agree that the slang expressions in any language are often very unique to that language and important to fully understand the specific culture of that country. However, this is becoming less and less important:  many of the slang expressions are just localized versions of the same expressions developed in other countries. But even more significant, there is really no codification of street-speak even in a single country. Take a break-dancer from The Bronx and send him to a rodeo down in Texas. I suspect that Paris has a whole different set of slang expressions than exists in a small Provençal village. Besides, some of the best slang is quick to expire and terms like “faire la nique” or “going to third base at the submarine races” become dated and silly whether they are in English, American, French, or German.

The problem with much of literature is that it takes a snapshot of the culture of a country and doesn’t change. Remember that old photo of Aunt Minnie with the curly hair, and the seam up the back of her stockings? Look at Minnie today:  only the teeth look new. So should we replace the picture of Minnie in the album every few years to keep it up-to-date or should we just enjoy the nostalgia of a time-gone-by? If we insist that idioms and slang should be acceptable to a current reader, why don’t we also insist on updating other things:  the surrey with the fringe on top gets changed into a Chevy with Tuck & Roll (or is that too dated also?). But they didn’t fight at Agincourt using drones and rapid-fire cannons, nor did they consider “friendly fire” or “collateral damage.” I am comfortable reading about longbows, varlets, chastity … all those obscure things from the past.

I took Cervantes at the university from Walter Starkie and his lecture on Don Quixote started out discussing the dilemma whether he should accurately translate a 16th century idiomatic expression or whether it would be best to substitute a well-known modern idiom which is used in English to give the same sense. He chose the English, or in his case probably Irish, expression. The irony is that whether the original Spanish “rashers and eggs” or the more modern English “tripe and trouble” expression was used, how many readers understand the idiom today? Think of it:  it fifty or sixty years, or maybe even centuries, students will stop to read the gloss in their copy of Gravity’s Rainbow to help them identify and relate to some obscure event called World War II … in fact, there is current evidence that this era is fading from memory as we speak (although the War of Northern Aggression is still keenly remembered here in South Carolina).

Here I pause to consider the changes to language thrust at us by the internet. Did you ever say “Laughing out loud and rolling of the floor” in your life under any circumstances? Well, now you find LOLAROTF being an acceptable response to almost anything that even mildly smacks of humor. Imagine when publishing moves totally onto the digital platform and novels use this ephemeral short-form language to conserve download time and conform to the six-second attention span of the reader … I recommend burying a few real books in the backyard so future generations will dig them up a have a groovy experience reading them.