Counting on the Norton Anthologies

I am a coauthor on this project with J.D. Porter.

The Norton Anthology of American Literature (NAAL), according to the Open Syllabus Project, is assigned more often than any other anthology on college syllabi. Given its dominance, Norton’s anthology has indexed and influenced the canon of American literature. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest that if someone had “studied the evolving tables of contents … [they] might have composed something more like an adequate history” of Norton’s anthologies. Using digital humanities methods and engaging with critical race and gender theory, we have written that history. Drawing on our newly developed database that captures all of the selections ever made by the editors of the NAAL, we trace the contours of the NAAL’s canon across the nine editions published since 1979. We show that the editors have increasingly made the author, not the work, the unit of the canon, adding new writers while simultaneously reducing the average number of works allocated to each writer. This strategy corresponds with an increasingly equitable representation of authors from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, gains in gender representation have lagged far behind, with men still outnumbering women by about two to one. Our database offers new opportunities for future research on the history of anthologization for hundreds of authors and thousands of works.

Triangles represent works (left y-axis) and circles represent authors (right y-axis).
This chart represents the distribution of author genders over time in the NAAL. Note that there is a null category. Generally, this refers to collectively authored documents such as letters attributed to “John and Abigail Adams.”