ROGER GILBERT: Welcome. Welcome, everyone, to the first event in our weekend's celebration of the 100th birthday of M.H. Abrams.
We'll have many more opportunities to applaud him this weekend. I'm Roger Gilbert, the Chair of the English Department. Let me just take a moment to thank some of those who helped to make this celebration possible. My colleagues, Jonathan Culler and Cathy Caruth have provided generous support and advice. We've also received support from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Society for the Humanities. A special thanks to the college's crack communications team, including Susan Robertson and Linda Glaser and also to the people who are doing all the technical work for today.
I also want to thank the English Department staff, especially our hardworking events coordinator, Karen Kudej and our manager Marianne Marsh and finally, thanks to Julia Reidhead and Carly Doria Fraser of WW Norton, who have worked very closely with us in planning this weekend birthday party.
A quick program note-- the celebration continues tomorrow, beginning at 12:30 in the AD White House with an event we're calling "Open Mic for Mike." A few slots are still available if you would like to participate. We're asking everyone to speak for no more than five minutes, and we'll be recording the entire event for Mike Abrams to enjoy.
Then at three, we will return to this room for our final event, which marks the publication of Professor Abrams' book, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem, copies of which will be for sale. Professor Abrams will give the book's title lecture, joined by three friends who will take up his ideas in short talks of their own. And you'll find details on both of tomorrow's events in your program.
And by the way, please notice as well the beautiful life drawing of William Wordsworth on the back of your program, which was purchased in honor of Professor Abrams' birthday by Katherine Reagan of the Kroch Rare and Manuscripts Library using a fund established by Professor Abrams. And we're hoping the drawing will be displayed sometime soon for everyone to get a look at.
Videos of all the weekend's events will be posted on a special website that the college has created. The address is as.cornell.edu/abrams, very simple. The website also has a timeline of Mike Abrams' life and career, as well as a guest book. And if you haven't had a chance to look at the guest book yet, I highly recommend that you do. There are some wonderful messages and anecdotes from Mike's friends, students, and admirers there.
Well, it is now my great privilege to turn the podium over to the President of Cornell, David Skorton.
DAVID SKORTON: Thank you, Roger, and I want to add my welcome to the celebration of M.H. Abrams. And if I may go off script to say, having your picture on the front page above the fold of the Ithaca Journal, you made it. You made it.
One of the greatest faculty members in the history of this or any university, happy birthday, Mike. I'm honored to join all of you in paying tribute to Professor Abrams, whose 100th birthday is just 48 hours from now. And I'm delighted that after hearing about him from friends and colleagues in the next few minutes, we're all going to have the pleasure of hearing his own thoughts on this momentous occasion. As a scholar and teacher and national leader in the humanities, Mike Abrams has few peers.
He's the author of one of the most successful dissertations in the history of literary studies published in 1953, The Mirror and the Lamp-- Romantic Theory in the Critical Tradition established him as an authority in romantic literature and is still in print today. In fact, it is number 25 on the modern library's list of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
It was followed by many other distinguished publications, including Natural Supernaturalism-- Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature in 1971, Doing Things With Texts-- Essays and Criticism in Critical Theory in 1989, and multiple editions of his authoritative Glossary of Literary Terms, first published in 1957. All are distinguished by his vast knowledge of literature and culture, lucid writing, and astute analysis.
And as many of you know, he has a new book coming out, as Roger just mentioned. The Fourth Dimension of a Poem, due out in September, is a selection of essays, some never before published. Each of us when we turn 100, Mike, will also have a book out, following your example.
As the founding editor of the ubiquitous Norton Anthology of English Literature, first launched in 1962, Mike has had a profound impact on education in the US and beyond. As general editor of the Norton Anthology for more than 40 years, he ensured that it remained essentially canonical without being hidebound, open to new entries without being faddish, attentive to changing scholarship without being tied to any single theory. And perhaps the Norton was so widely appreciated because its editor cared so deeply about how young students were introduced to literature.
For all his distinguished reputation among distinguished literary scholars, Mike Abrams never tired of teaching the introductory survey. He once told a writer for The New York Times, "it's always fresh, always fun to teach. It keeps you in touch with everything."
Generations of Cornell students have been fortunate to learn from him. Having earned his PhD at Harvard in 1940, he arrived at Cornell in 1945 as an assistant professor. In 1960, he became the first to hold the Frederic J. Whiton Professorship of English Literature, and in '73, succeeded to the class of 1960 Professorship, which he now holds as an emeritus professor.
His presence here at Cornell attracted many accomplished faculty, especially but not limited to those interested in Romanticism and countless talented students as well. Many of those students have gone on to significant academic and literary careers of their own-- Harold Bloom, Thomas Pynchon, Sandra Gilbert. Eminent literary scholars visit Cornell each year through the M.H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professorship, a gift from the late Stephen H. Weiss, class of '57, former Chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees and a longtime friend of Mike's.
We also appreciate Mike for his devotion to the broader life of the University, especially Cornell athletics. He is a fan of basketball and hockey and wrestling and lacrosse, but it's his dedication to Cornell football that has become truly legendary-- Norton Anthology, Cornell football-- so much so that in 2007, the team named him an honorary co-captain.
And in 2010, he was presented with a plaque, now hanging in Bartels Hall, declaring him the Big Red's number one fan.
Beyond his scholarship in teaching, M.H. Abrams has played another role that is increasingly vital, that of a national leader in the humanities. As you know, we have never needed leadership like this more than we do now. He is a co-founder of the National Humanities Center located in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. It is the only major American Institute for Advanced Study across all fields of the humanities, and since 1978, it has been bringing together outstanding scholars from the US and abroad.
Professor Abrams is also the co-founder of the Society for the Humanities, established here at Cornell in 1966. The Society, as you know, plays an important role in the life of the University, fostering interdisciplinary dialogue in the humanities, bringing in distinguished visiting fellows to teach, and sponsoring workshops and funding opportunities for faculty and graduate students.
In addition to these vital founding roles, Mike Abrams is an eloquent spokesperson for the value of the humanities, again, something we need so dearly right now. "Humanistic studies," he wrote in a 1997 essay, "pose questions that are of prime human importance for which no answers are uncontestably certain. The necessity, vitality, and vexatious of literary and other humanistic studies lie in the fact that they raise and reraise questions about the concerns we live by."
It's my great pleasure to salute Mike Abrams, scholar, teacher, and pillar of humanistic studies. Mike, at 100 years, you're still leading us to ask the essential questions. Thank you and bless you.
ROGER GILBERT: Thank you so much, David. Well, let me now introduce the four people sitting in the comfortable chairs at the front of the room. If I tried to list all their accomplishments we would be here till midnight, so I will be extremely brief.
Jonathan Culler is the class of 1916, Professor of English at Cornell, which is a chair he inherited from M.H. Abrams. Geoffrey Harpham is the Director of the National Humanities Center and the co-author with Mike Abrams of the continually revised and updated Glossary of Literary Terms, now in its 10th edition. Donald Lamb is the chairman emeritus of W.W. Norton, where he worked closely with Mike Abrams on the Norton Anthology of English Literature. As for the fourth person sitting here, if you don't know who he is, you're obviously in the wrong place. Jonathan Culler, Geoffrey Harpham, and Donald Lamb will each speak for a few minutes and then join Mike Abrams in conversation.
JONATHAN CULLER: Well, it's really a great pleasure to participate in this celebration of M.H. Abrams' 100th birthday. Some 35 years ago, when I accepted the invitation to join the Cornell faculty, I was immediately asked, invited to participate in a celebration to mark Mike's 65th birthday. In the following spring, my first year at Cornell, a distinguished group of scholars gathered here for two days of discussion of critical theory and Romanticism, subsequently published under the title High Romantic Argument by Cornell University Press-- so Geoffrey Harpham, Jonathan Wordsworth, Wayne Booth, Larry Lipking, who is, I'm delighted to see here, back here, as he is about to begin his stint as an M.H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor.
But on that occasion 35 years ago, I spoke about The Mirror and the Lamp. Now, Mike has always insisted that Natural Supernaturalism is the more important book. It's much wider in its scope, and, as he has put it, "has to do with what is much more humanly important than literary criticism." Hm, a puzzling, puzzling idea. I don't know.
So it is an intellectual and imaginative history of the Romantic period, which not only analyzes the process of secularization that sort of reproduced the Hebrew-Christian paradigm in different forms, but it reveals parallels between the metaphysical systems, such as Hegel's phenomenology and the autobiographical structures of Wordsworth's prelude and also modes of history being written at the time.
So it's a very comprehensive account of intellectual tendencies in poetry and philosophy at the dawn of modernity. It's a book that has been much praised and has won prizes. But my vote still goes to The Mirror and the Lamp, which really struck a chord at a time when people were beginning to think about criticism as a separate discipline in itself.
And as a major work of intellectual history that pioneered a method of conceptual analysis based on the excavation of metaphors. So for people of my generation, nurtured on the new criticism, which we saw as sweeping away the sort of dilettantish literary history that had preceded it, my generation, we looked to The Mirror and the Lamp for an account of earlier Romantic ways of thinking about literature. But we were brought to a halt, brought up short by its first sentence-- "The development of literary theory in the lifetime of Coleridge was, to a surprising extent, the making of the modern critical mind."
So the book demonstrated that a whole series of concepts that we had thought of as anti-Romantic were actually the product of Romantic theorists and critics, notions like the poem as a self-contained heterocosm or the inseparability of form and content or the idea, conception of a good poem as a product of a unified sensibility, which we thought, of course, T.S. Eliot had invented and done in T.S. Eliot but not the Romantics. But Mike's compelling intellectual history gave us a different genealogy for critical terms and modern criticism.
Taking my cue on that occasion 35 years ago, taking my cue from Mike's own analysis of the changing system of metaphors through which the theory of poetry and literary criticism itself developed, and especially his shrewd account of Coleridge's critical writing as what he called a jungle of vegetation, I discovered in Mike's account the beginning of a deconstructive reading of organicist theory, the revelation of a self-deconstructive movement within romantic theoretical discourse.
And in his generous response to our papers, delivered extemporary at the end of the conference and then published as the final essay in High Romantic Argument-- it's really a remarkable piece of writing that I commend to you all-- in those comments, Mike conceded that looking back from the vantage point Culler so acutely provides, I am compelled to agree that I can indeed be plausibly represented as a precursor of the disseminating strategy of Jacques Derrida. So I bring this up, because this is to remind you today of a side of M.H. Abrams that has not been generally recognized. Though, he would insist that, as he says, I remain an unreconstructed humanist.
So now, as we celebrate the publication of The Fourth Dimension of a Poem, I note that this seems really an entirely new line of critical analysis for Mike. I mean, most of us would be happy to have a new idea in our '60s, much less in our '90s, but we know he's worked in intellectual history, a history of criticism. He's described, what, five types of licitus, and the structure and style of the greater Romantic lyric. He has always been a skilled analyst of language and of rhetorical figures as witness, Mirror in the Lamp and the essay, "The Correspondent Breeze."
But he hadn't really published detailed close readings of poems. Much less of their phonological patterning, and here, in this new book, and in the lecture you'll hear tomorrow, he turns not just to the language of the poem but to the physical act of articulating its sounds as well as the sounds themselves.
So I will shortly ask him about his work during the Second World War in a supposedly secret psychoacoustic laboratory in the basement of Memorial Hall in Cambridge, where he was working on problems of voice communication and coding in noisy military environments. And I wonder whether this work sowed a seed that then germinated some 50 or 55 years later. At any rate, this is a striking new direction, and to go in a new direction in one's 90s is really a very remarkable thing, I think.
Now, I arrived at Cornell too late to witness much more than a little of Mike's legendary calming influence on an English department then inclined to be-- which could be quite fractious. Even when he was vigorously fighting the culture wars outside of Cornell at home, he discouraged factionalism. He insisted we respect each other and reward work well done, even when it flowed from principles that might be anathema to us.
He was always admirably adroit at avoiding administration, but as a consequence, he was very supportive of those who were willing to take on such jobs and did his best to see that things flowed smoothly, functioned smoothly, while reserving himself for teaching and scholarly projects along with a considerable dose of time for Cornell sports, as President Skorton has mentioned.
As he said, in honor of his 95th birthday, the football team made him an honorary co-captain. And for the Harvard game, he went, was on the field in his Cornell uniform and actually called the coin toss. He has established a record, which will certainly never be equaled of attending every home football game, apparently between 1945 when he came to Cornell and 2010. So it is certainly never-- again, impossible to imagine anyone equaling that record. So what will the football team do in this year for his 100th anniversary? Perhaps they could win some games in honor of M.H. Abrams.
Well, you all know his achievements as-- you know of his achievements as scholar, editor, pedagogue. What you may not know about this man of inordinate talents is that he is also a poet. For many years, our late colleague Archie Ammons would leave little poems in Mike's mailbox, often scabrous with bad puns, and Mike would sometimes reply in kind.
So when Mike presented Archie with the two volumes of the Norton Anthology, Archie responded with a verse epistle, called "Ambivalence Reconsidered," mulling over the question of whether volume one or volume two was to be preferred, while considering them only as physical objects and, as Mike put it, ignoring every aspect that might have been the work of an editor, Archie's poem.
So Mike replied with a poem weighing the merits of the poet's two names. It's called "Ambivalence Reconciled," an appropriate title for M.H. Abrams. I'm sorry. I got the titles wrong. "Ambivalence Re-Examined," isn't it? I'm sorry. Yes.
"I can't decide which of the poet's names is more to the point for the first begins with A so does the second. Hence, both are primary taken as letter or letter grade. And as for the other letters, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other.
But maybe the syllables will tip the scale. Let's ponder anew. Arch, now that's just right. A work of art on nature conducting force from Earth through stones on stones, up the stone that takes the stress, spanning the gap from A to E, a shriek of admiration and dismay at being.
But wait, "am" asserts being itself. First person singular, at that. So even a solipsist could raise no objection.
As for "mons," that names two things, one geological and big, the other biological and small but the zest of a goddess to redress the balance while both, what's more, are natural and equally sublime.
What can a metris suspended in the space between two trochees do before the equivalence but reach his right arm to arch and E, his left to am and mons and embrace them both, or if poetry must be grammatical, which I doubt, all?"
It's very good to-- a very great pleasure to honor this remarkable fellow.
GEOFFREY HARPHAM: Well done, Jonathan. I first read Mike Abrams in the late 1960s. It was an essay called "The Correspondent Breeze," which some people described to me as old-fashioned but which seemed to my eye to be wonderfully correspondent with that very breezy era.
I first read about him in 1971, a review in the Hudson Review by Robert Martin Adams, also a Cornellian, of Mike's Natural Supernaturalism and Paul de Man's Blindness and Insight, also an erstwhile Cornellian. From that review I still remember 41 years later, a couple of sentences at the very beginning, which I think I've got right.
"Abrams takes his scholarship straight. He does not administer, does not review, does not engage in log rolling. He is a scholar, colon, he thinks."
But except for a brief meeting at a conference, I had not met Mike until nine years ago. I had just become Director of the National Humanities Center, and I came up to Ithaca to meet Mike, who is revered in North Carolina and wherever the humanities flourish, as one of the three founders of the National Humanities Center. That is, he not only thinks, he also acts.
Shortly after that visit, Mike asked me to collaborate with him on the eighth edition of the Glossary of Literary Terms, this book. I was initially uncertain. I didn't know if I had the time, and frankly, I didn't know if it would be that interesting. The glossary seemed to me to be the least of Mike's accomplishments. It was undoubtedly a service to the profession, but I couldn't get out of my mind Dr. Johnson's definition of the lexicographer as a harmless drudge.
But as I was dithering with my decision, I noticed that in my own library, I had four copies of the Glossary. Once a decade, it seemed a very good idea to buy the latest edition. And as I reflected, I thought that if I had felt this way, maybe others had felt and would continue to feel this way. So in the end, I agreed.
After doing three editions with Mike, I now think of this as one of the smartest decisions I ever made. But more to the point, I think of the Glossary of Literary Terms as Mike's greatest book. It is his longest, having been over a half a century in the making, and it contains the most abundant display of Mike's characteristic virtues-- a commitment to comprehensive knowledge, clarity of exposition, and a quality that I can only call by terms like largeness of soul or generosity of spirit.
Maybe it's most characteristic of Mike that it's most deeply personal in its utter selflessness. In fact, so selfless it had actually been somebody else's book to begin with. J. Peters Rushton, a friend of Mike's who had written a pamphlet version, but had unfortunately died before it could be revised.
Mike was asked to take it over. In the mid-1950s, he was given a couple of weeks to do the job. He took it on, but he took it seriously. And in the end, ultimately produced a quite different book altogether but one that still retained ghostly traces of Pete Rushton, as in the definition of cosmic irony.
"Cosmic irony is attributed to literary works in which a deity or else fate is represented as though deliberately manipulating events so as to lead the protagonist to false hopes only to frustrate and mock them." The example given is Tess of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, who having lost her virtue because of her innocence then loses her happiness because of her honesty, finds it again only by murder, and having been briefly happy, is hanged, on which, Hardy concludes with cosmic irony. "The President of the Immortals in Aeschylean phrase had ended his sport with Tess." That highly efficient count of Rushton's pamphlet went into Mike's first edition, and it will go untouched into the 11th.
The Glossary is often and very justly praised for its clarity and erudition, but the one thing I've really come to appreciate as I've gotten closer and closer to it is its constant good humor. For example, the definition of bombast-- denotes a wordy and inflated diction that is patently disproportionate to the matter that it signifies, and even so fine a poet as Marlowe can sometimes fall into it, as when Dr. Faustus declares, "now by the kingdoms of infernal rule of Styx, Acheron, and the fiery lake of ever-burning Phlegethon, I swear that I do long to see the monuments and situation of bright splendid Rome." On which Mike says, which is to say, "by Hades, I'd like to see Rome."
Or literature-- he notes the term is susceptible of several definitions, including one in which it refers to simply the sum of works that deal with a particular subject matter. At a major American university that includes a college of agriculture-- which could that be, I wonder-- the chairman of the division of literature once received this letter. "Dear Sir, kindly send me all your literature concerning the use of cow manure as fertilizer."
It's a Glossary of Literary Terms, after all. Or the definition of bathos, which was described as the art of sudden sinking, with an example, "for God, for country, and for Yale." Haven't sold a lot of copies of this in New Haven.
Or one of my first contributions-- I came up here in 2004 to consult and to make sure that we were on the same page. And Mike said, I think we we need an example of a limerick, but all the limericks I can think of are not-- they involve, like, men from Nantucket. We wouldn't want to print this in a book of this kind. Can you think of any limericks?
And so I went back and searched my brain, and I finally, luckily, came up with one from the great Cornellian Morris Bishop, about which Mike says, "some limericks are decorous but many are ribald. Here is a limerick about the limerick from the scholar and humorist Professor Morris Bishop, which is itself decorous, but indicates the form's propensity toward the alternative mode.
The limerick is furtive and mean. You must keep her in close quarantine or she sneaks to the slums and promptly becomes disorderly, drunk, and obscene."
But perhaps the best indication of our working method comes in the entry on rap. Now, Mike allocated this to me, thinking that at my extreme youth I must be plunged into this culture. So I went ahead and wrote an entry, and Mike read it, considered it, and returned it with nine questions, including things like, is it composed solely to be performed in public or can it be written? What musical instruments produce the beat, drums, guitar, piano, plucked bass? I'm really guessing here. To what extent is it extemporized. Is the rap you describe as misogynist also known as gangsta rap?
I earnestly researched these questions and submitted a revised version. I didn't get a reply, so I assumed that it met with Mike's approval. But when the next edition of the Glossary appeared, I was surprised to see two passages that I had not written. The first is not to be found in any of the standard accounts of rap, and I've consulted many of them. Quote, there is an interesting parallel between rap and the strong stress meter and the performance of old English poetry. See under meter.
But most astonishing was a new quotation, a new rap verse illustrating non-misogynistic, non-homophobic, non-sociopathic rap from Queen Latifah called "The Evil That Men Do." Where did this come from? At first, I thought that Mike must have an extremely hip assistant. Then I met Diane.
Where are you? There's Diane. There she is. That's right.
Actually, that's a little bit unfair, because Diane did actually make a contribution. In typing Mike's letter to me, she actually answered the question about whether rap was ever extemporized. She noted in brackets, yes, it is sometimes extemporized. It's known as freestyling and is sometimes done competitively, Diane. Diane may spend her weekdays in medieval studies, but the weekends are completely different.
In truth, both Mike and I were freestyling when it came to rap. And since there was, I have to admit, an element of competition in our back and forth-- I was promoting the idea that rap was actually an acronym for rhythm and poetry, but Mike countered with an old dictionary definition that listed rap as a slang term defining extensive talk.
So I think you could say that this entry, which will constitute a definition of rap long after rap has faded from the scene emerged from competitive freestyling or more precisely, and you can consult the Glossary on this, battle rapping between me and Mike. Anyhow, we were so pleased with the result that we put this page on the cover of the ninth edition.
The entirety of the Glossary seems to be composed as an extended illustration of Sydney's defensive poesy. "For he doth not only show the way but give it so sweet a prospect to the way as will entice any man to enter into it. He begineth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margin with interpretations and load the memory with doubtfulness, but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion."
Now this is no more than to say that there is an intimate correspondence between the Glossary and literature itself. No one in the world other than Mike Abrams could have written it. Even if someone else had the necessary knowledge, which they do not, they could not, unless they also had largeness of soul and generosity of spirit, have continued to work on this book over the decades, each new edition documenting, synthesizing, and integrating the turbulence of an extraordinary half century.
The Glossary not only defines onomatopoeia, half-rhyme, and cosmic irony, it has entries on terms that would buckle the knees of a mere lexicographer-- criticism, interpretation and hermeneutics, Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, the periods of English and American literature-- Imagine writing the entries on these-- fiction, neoclassic and romantic, metaphor, theories of, empathy, and sympathy.
Now, most of these represent fields or topics that Mike had not worked in or and even in some cases had much sympathy for. They are all miracles of compression, lucidity, authority, and fairness. They give the book the feel of a classic and a masterwork, even while it retains the humble character of a guide to the present state of literary study. No matter how many editions you own, you probably need to get the latest one, and I'm sure Mike would agree with that.
The powerful and much needed message of this utterly message-less book is that there is such a thing as literary study, that these terms are among the facts of the field. They are the stars of which the constellations are formed, and in the longer essayistic entries, the glossary actually gives you the constellations. Battle rapping, freestyle, and flow are defined in the context of rap, which is one form of performance poetry. See also poetry slam and poetry happenings.
Now, all this may have been very far from J. Peters Rushton's ironic mind, but today, the volume that grew from this little pamphlet provides a compelling answer to the perennial question of what literary study is and ought to be-- a field of knowledge and a source of supreme interest and pleasure. Perhaps Mike's greatest gift to the profession and to the world is this sturdy confidence manifest in this book and in all his other works and indeed, in his life as a whole. The literature is a thing well worth knowing and that the effort invested in learning it is repaid by a lifetime of rewards no matter how long that lifetime might be.
DONALD LAMB: Well, it's a delight for me to be here and represent three generations of Nortonians, most of which Mike-- in fact, all of which, Mike has outwitted and most of which Mike has outlived. There are many, many people at my old firm who played significant roles with Mike, and I'm delighted he's here, because my testimony, such as it is, demands a truth squad, and there it is. The one man truth squad who will correct, I am sure, errors that abound in these remarks.
I ask you to become with me time travelers and head back to two notable years in Mike's life. Early in May 2007, I received a call from the Vice President of Yale University in anticipation of the graduation that would take place later that month. Linda Lorimer was concerned that one of the honorands that year might not be able to mount the stairs to the second floor of Woodbridge Hall and share the traditional robing ceremony on that floor. Although I hadn't seen Mike for several years, I assured her that he would make his way up the stairs faster than anyone who might escort him and he did.
Decisions to award honorary degrees at Yale are usually arrived at over years of earnest deliberations, and those deliberations are subject to the strictest confidence. But I can part the curtains slightly to reveal that the decision in Mike's case was put on the fastest track, save one, in recent times.
In fact, the nomination was greeted on the committee initially by surprise. Surely, one of the committee members asked, Yale must have given a degree to Professor Abrams years ago. The record showed differently, and in a matter of two months, the nomination was passed on to the Yale Corporation, which immediately gave its approval and an invitation went out to Mike a few days later.
Now, as for the nomination that set the record for speedier approval, at least to my knowledge, that was in 2001. The recipient-to-be was the recently inaugurated president of the United States, perhaps unvoiced fear lurked on the committee that if delayed, an honorary degree awarded to George W. Bush might embarrass the University from which he, of course, had graduated in 1968.
The citation to Mike Abrams read in part, "you are one of the greatest literary critics, possessing the rare capacity to see at once the whole and the parts, explicating both with astonishing clarity. Your influence on scholars has been profound, and your influence on your students has been warm, generous, and free of any desire to brand them with your own ideas or create disciples."
Now, others speaking this weekend will attest to the accuracy of those words. It is an aspect, however, of Mike's influence, not cited in New Haven on that day that I will turn to, and that requires a second flashback, this to 1962.
The spring of that year saw the publication of two volumes that would change the teaching of the English literature survey for decades and no doubt will do so, so long as that indispensable course, as Mike used to term it, continues to be taught. I was present at its creation, albeit in a minor role.
The impetus for my firm, W.W. Norton, to challenge the leading anthologies in the field arose years earlier. Norton had recently published anthologies in American literature and world literature that immediately gained footholds in their respective fields. Masterminding those anthologies was my predecessor, George Brockway, who was soon to become president of the firm.
What do we do for an encore, George asked the three college travelers then at the firm. One of us replied, let's grasp the brass ring, a survey of English literature. For our travels the next fall, Brockway armed us with a simple questionnaire, nothing like those multipage surveys one is subjected to now. It fit comfortably on a three-by-five card. We made no robocalls.
Instead, in person, we asked professors these two questions-- what anthology do you currently assign your students? And how many students take your course? The results were hand-tabulated and showed a near even split between two Harcourt Brace anthologies, The College Survey of English Literature and Major British Writers.
The former was the epitome of the shotgun approach. In effect, all the authors that fit, we print. The latter, as the title suggested, was highly selective. Brockway devised a strategy at once. Drive a wedge between the two approaches. But where to find a distinguished scholar who took a similar tack? It was not an easy search.
His travels soon led him to this very building, to Goldwin Smith Hall, where he put the question to a professor of American literature, his classmate, Robert Elias. Why, the person you want to talk to has an office a few doors away. And so came about the meeting with Mike Abrams, whose course, in fact, steered the very tricky path between being too inclusive and too selective.
The Cornell course was, in effect, the proving ground for Norton's anthology scheme. In short order, Mike became not only a general editor but also an editor general. For it was Mike who recruited eight period authors-- eight period editors, two from his own department but others from places as far flung as Yale, the University of Minnesota, Caltech, and Rochester.
It was also Mike who laid down the editorial guidelines. These involved a delicate balance, weighing the indisputable greatest writers in tandem with, as Mike put it, copious examples of other writers and writings, excellent in themselves, also representative in each age of the reigning literary form and the chief movements of convention and revolt, tradition and innovation.
As general editor and editor general, Mike took command. Yet, from the start, he inspired collegiality among the period editors, circulating proposed contents for each period to all the editors. As I recall, a sample headnote on John Donne was prepared by Cornell's Bob Adams. With slight revision, it became the model for all the headnotes, setting forth something more than the life and works of the author, a sense of how that author spoke to the qualities of the age.
And Mike also laid down the via media for annotation, full explication, where needed, of phrases and references without thrusting interpretations at the reader. Just how to decide what required annotation was based on Mike's own experience. Even the brightest students do not know what they do not know.
Many other decisions had to be made. Versions of the text needed to be selected, and again, as Mike put it, no less scrupulously edited than texts for the scholars. The period introductions had to be comprehensive but not exhaustive. A properly executed anthology would not overwhelm the works themselves with editorial matter.
Mike summed up the editorial design, to make each volume self-sufficient and independent of works of reference so that it cannot only be carried everywhere but read everywhere, in one's private room, in the classroom, or under a tree. That sentence on the physical book would reveal something about Mike Abrams that we had suspected but never fully realized until a sales conference in the fall before the anthology was published. He was a master pitch man.
Before the assembled multitude of college travelers-- there were actually only 10 at the time-- Mike hefted a volume of The College Survey of English Literature. His grasp was firm, but his arm drooped under the weight of that massive volume. Then he put the College Survey aside and lofted a dummy volume of the Norton Anthology. You see, he pointed out, you can hold it in one hand.
And then and there, he launched the phrase about reading it under a tree but with a corollary that we dared not print in the preface, suggesting that such encounters with the anthology might lead to romantic encounters on a university's green. Imagine what he would do with a Norton Anthology on a Kindle or a Nook? I prefer not to think about it.
As the anthology was being set in type a choice of titles had to be made. The previous Norton anthologies, to which I have alluded, were entitled The American Tradition in Literature and World Masterpieces. Despite its 38 years of existence, the firm was much too small to lend its name to those anthologies. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Norton was poised on the knife edge between growth and decline at the time and that was reflected in the palpable tension that marked the meeting when the anthology was finally branded The Norton Anthology of English Literature, the first of the many anthologies that collectively would become known as in The Nortons. Our confidence in Mike had driven that branding.
Our confidence, however, dipped when the first dozen or so comment cards that professors filled out-- they were always inserted in sample copies of the book. When those first comment cards arrived at the office, quite a few rang negative tones, mostly about the physical properties of the book. The type is too small. The paper is too thin. The anthology I now use includes many more authors, or conversely, I prefer to teach only 40 really big authors.
The glum caused by those curbstone comments wasn't dispelled for several days. At last, the not so silent majority weighed in with praise to the judiciousness of the selections, the unobtrusive support given by the editorial matter, and much more. The early returns had been, in effect, a literary replay of Dewey beats Truman.
They were overwhelmed by praiseful comments from almost all quarters, aside from an editor of a competing anthology, who didn't think much of what Mike and his team had created. So many of the grandees of the profession hailed the Norton Anthology of English Literature that we hastily sent out a mailing, stating on the envelope in very bold type "a few words from," and then in somewhat smaller type listing in alphabetical order 80 or so names. I still remember it began with Richard Altick. But I cannot, at this distance in time, recall the rest of the luminaries who pronounced that work of 4 and 1/2 years a triumph.
Mike brought to Norton it's landmark anthology and a good deal more. With Mike's blessing and guidance, the firm launched a series entitled The Norton Critical Editions that drew on many of the editorial principles undergirding The Norton Anthology of English Literature. And he became the paterfamilias to a number of innovative anthologies, the first to take up African American literature, women's literature, and culminating in the Norton Shakespeare, that would have as its general editor Stephen Greenblatt, who now shares the role of general editor on the very anthology that Mike had initiated.
Not incidentally, as a mark of a burgeoning alliance, Norton took over publication of Mike's The Mirror and the Lamp, and in 1973, brought out the further influential work Natural Supernaturalism. It is fitting that the firm's happy association with Mike, will include the appearance this year, as Roger Gilbert has stated, of The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and other essays.
I've gone on far longer than the time allotted. To have said less would have diminished the achievements of a master teacher and scholar. And yet, I have failed to mention two things-- the friendships formed by successive Nortonians over the year with Mike and Ruthie and their daughters. Those friendships were far more than a consequence of shared success.
But finally, I must acknowledge a failure. Over the years of collaboration with Mike, no one, either at Norton or among the faculty at the universities I knew from firsthand experience, Yale and Oxford, could come close to pronouncing a four-letter word with the eloquence conveyed by Mike Abrams. I dare not even try on this occasion. I will spell it out and allow it to resonate in the memories of all of us who know and revere M.H. Abrams, P-O-E-M. Happy birthday, Mike.
ROGER GILBERT: Thank you very much.
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Jonathan Culler, Geoffrey Harpham, and Donald Lamm gave short talks in honor of Professor M.H. Abrams' 100th birthday celebration on July 21, 2012, at Cornell University.