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Powerful pages – unprecedented public impact of W.W. Norton and Co’s Norton Anthology of African American Literature

New African American Literature Anthology is Finding Academic and General Audiences

It came as a surprise to Dr. Linda Reed, a history professor at the
University of Houston, that her students began asking about the newly
published Norton Anthology of Africa n American Literature months
before she or their other professors began assigning it in class. The
students, according to Reed, were already buying the anthology off the
shelves of local bookstores before Reed had finished evaluating it as a
text for her course on African American history and culture.

“I had just gotten the book from the publisher only a few weeks before my students started telling me about it,” Reed says.

This fall, Reed is using the anthology to teach “African American
History and Culture in the Twentieth Century” to more than forty
students who enrolled in the class. She says many of the texts, such as
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” are
important historical documents and other literature, such as plays and
song lyrics, help her teach lessons about African American culture.

By conventional publishing industry standards the Norton Anthology
of African American Literature has already achieved stunning success in
attracting a broad general audience. Published just last December, the
2,665-page anthology has gone through four printings – an impressive
mark for a book largely intended for the academic market. Dr. Henry
Louis Gates Jr. and Dr. Nellie McKay served as the text’s general

Ironically, despite its commercial splash, the criteria for the
anthology’s ultimate success will rest not on how well the public likes
it, but rather on whether it finds wide acceptance among teachers and
students of African American studies at colleges and universities.
Already, in what is the start of the first full school year for the
book, the anthology is exceeding sales expectations with teachers
adopting it for use in their courses.

At the end of August, the W.W. Norton Company, the anthology’s New
York-based publisher, reported the anthology had generated some 371
course adoptions by American college and university faculty for the
current school year. Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton vice-president and
in-house editor of the anthology, says academic sales have exceeded
more than 10,000. Instructors ordered on average twenty to forty
anthology copies for their classes. The largest adoption of the text
was an order for 400 copies for a single course, according to Reidhead.

“It’s amazing. A lot of people want to teach from the anthology,” Reidhead says.

Currently, the popular trade sales of the anthology are still
exceeding those sold in the academic market. Although Reidhead would
not divulge total sales figures for the anthology, she says the text’s
first printing, which sold out in February 1997 almost entirely by
general market bookstores, was 30,000. Subsequent printings of the book
have ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 copies.

Sales from the second, third and fourth printings have been divided between general trade and the academic markets.

McKay, who is professor of African American and American literature
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the general market
popularity of the book has surprised her more than its promising debut
in the academy.

“I think the anthology is being perceived not strictly as a college
textbook. It’s captured the attention of many outside the academy,”
McKay says.

Upon its publication last year, the anthology generated considerable
excitement in the publishing and academic communities. More than ten
years in the making, the long anticipated Norton Anthology was hailed
as an achievement for the acknowledgement and acceptance of African
American literature. The anthology’s publication was seen as a great
triumph, especially for Gates, chairman of Afro-American studies at
Harvard University, who proposed the idea during the mid-1980s.

Some of the editors, who worked on the project with Gates and McKay,
say the project had been a frustrating enterprise because of its

“It took twice as long as we thought it would,” McKay said. “It was
exhilarating at times. But, on the other hand, it could be depressing.”

Part of the delay was caused by the untimely deaths of two editors
at Norton who each had headed the project during the late 1980s and
early 1990s. Reidhead inherited responsibility for the anthology in
1993 and guided it to completion.

The Norton literature anthology series in American, British, and other fields are widely used in college and university courses.

The African American volume is the seventh in the Norton series. The
academic edition, which is in paperback form, is sent to instructors
with a course guide and suggestions on using the anthology in teaching.
The general trade edition is published in hardback.

The anthology includes the work of 120 writers, fifty-two of whom
are women. The anthology has texts of writings such as The Narrative of
the Life of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black
Folk, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun,
along with selections from Black writers from eighteenth-century poet
Phillis Wheatley to contemporary novelist Walter Mosley.

The academic edition of the anthology comes with an audio compact
disc (CD) that has music and dramatic and poetry readings. It contains
recordings by such musicians as Hudson William Ledbetter – better known
as Leadbelly – and Louis Armstrong, and speeches by Martin Luther King
Jr., and Malcolm X. The CD also is available by mail to consumers of
the general trade edition for $15.99 with a coupon enclosed in the book.

“This anthology gives you a good sample of not just the greats and
their importance, but those who are not as well remembered,” says Dr.
William L. Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English at the
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Andrews, who was one of nine editors who worked in coordination with
Gates and McKay on the anthology, is using the anthology in a course
he’s teaching this semester on early African American literature. He
says it was important to have included a wide range of lesser known
writers to provide context for more prominent writers.

“[The anthology] makes [it] possible for a lot of innovation in
course design and still have a good text with which to do it,” Andrews

Andrews added that English and literature departments where faculty
have not taught African American literature can no longer make the
claim that no adequate anthologies exist.

“I don’t think anyone can say that now,” he says.

Dr. Angelene Jamison-Hall, professor of African American and women
studies at the University of Cincinnati, began using the African
American anthology last spring, and is using it again this fall. She
says she likes it, but adds that its footnotes provide too much help to

“I want my students not to have everything available for them. They
should have to go off and look things up,” Jamison-Hall says.

Dr. Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English and
Afro-American studies at UCLA, said he believes the popular interest in
the anthology derives partly from the fact that Black writers are
enjoying widespread popularity in American society.

“There’s never been a bigger boom for Black writing in history like
this before,” Yarborough says. “More Black writers are being published
now than at any other time.”

Yarborough says the real test for the anthology will come during the
next five years. If the anthology continues to have widespread course
adoptions and it retains a loyal following of faculty, then it should
be judged a success, he says.

RELATED ARTICLE: Houghton Mifflin Responds to Call With New Anthology

Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American
Literary Tradition offers teachers who seek an alternative anthology of
African American literature a collection of works organized around the
concept of call and response.

Call and response patterns in literary and cultural works originated
from African and African American cultural traditions. The new 2,048
page anthology includes works representing the centuries-long emergence
of this distinctly Black literary and cultural aesthetic in fiction,
poetry, drama, essays, sermons, speeches, criticism, journals, and song
lyrics from spirituals to rap.

The anthology, published in 1997 by the Houghton Mifflin Company,
organizes its selections around three themes: the pattern of call and
response, the journey toward freedom, and major historical events in
the African American experience. The anthology editors have woven
together selections, critical analysis of the texts, historical
background, and biographies into a scholarly, unified, and
chronological approach to African American literature and culture. Dr.
Patricia Liggins Hill of the University of San Francisco served as
general editor of the anthology.

For more information about Call & Response, call 1-800-225-1464.

-Ronald Roach

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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