Counting on The Norton Anthology of American Literature

I coauthored this essay with J.D. Porter. The essay appeared in PMLA in 2024.


We created a database that captures every author and work selected for every edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (NAAL). Given the influence of the NAAL, this database reveals changes in the literary canon over the past half-century. We find that the common story of improved diversity is truer with respect to race than gender.

However, the biggest structural change has been consistent and substantial growth in the number of anthologized authors. We argue that, while the strategy of growth has produced real gains, it also creates a canon that is less effective at managing reader attention, that affords women and people of color a less valuable position in the canon than their white peers once enjoyed, and that tacitly accepts the notion that the new additions cannot be aesthetically superior to the original roster of mostly white men, whom we show editors too rarely replace.