As an editor of eminent anthology, Lewis carries on a Yale tradition
Shortly after Pericles Lewis became a full professor in Yale’s Departments of English and Comparative Literature, in 2007, he was recruited by Martin Puchner, a Harvard professor and author, to help edit the third edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, a carefully curated collection of short stories, novels, plays, and poems that has been read by generations of students.
Lewis, a scholar of literary modernism, happily took on “Volume F” (one of six in the anthology), which included literature written from 1900 to the present. He found the experience so rewarding that he agreed to edit the fourth edition as well. And even after being named dean of Yale College in 2022, Lewis agreed to stay on for yet another edition.
The fifth edition will be released on June 1.
“About a third of the volume consists of works that I’ve studied and done a lot of scholarly work on,” said Lewis, the Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of Comparative Literature in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “But what is exciting to me is being able to work on more recent writers and think about how we introduce young people to literature today.”
These newer voices have included writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’08 M.A., whose story “The Headstrong Historian,” first published in The New Yorker, was added by Lewis to the anthology’s fourth edition in 2018. (He discussed the work with the Nigerian writer when she was at Yale to deliver the Class Day speech in 2019.) And Yoko Tawada, a Japanese writer who lives in Germany and whose translated stories he added this year. And the late Singaporean poet, Arthur Yap Chioh Hiong, who composed poems in Singlish — a lingua franca that combines elements of English, Malay, and Chinese dialect — is also new to this edition.
Beyond being a labor of love, Lewis’s work on the anthology, under the general editorship of Puchner, continues a tradition for Yale scholars. Many other prominent Yale faculty have worked as editors or consultants for the anthology since its debut in the 1950s. And as it happens, the founder and first editor of the anthology was a former luminary of the Yale English Department, Maynard Mack.
Swimming against the tide
Mack, a Sterling Professor and world-renowned expert on Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, was one of the founders of Yale’s Directed Studies program (an intensive program for first-year students in foundational Western and Near Eastern philosophy, historical and political thought, and literature) in 1947. The idea for an anthology sprang from the survey course he developed for that program, “Literature 1” (the precursor to today’s “English 129”).
“The anthology was conceived as a compact and cost-effective way to bring the primary texts for that course to undergraduate readers,” said Peter Simon, editor in chief of Liveright, who served as an editor to Mack decades later at W.W. Norton & Company. “It was at the time an introduction to selected literature from the Western canon, which the waves of first-generation undergrads, especially those going to college under the G.I. Bill, weren’t necessarily familiar with, and certainly hadn’t studied in depth.”
Mack was aided in his effort by a team of editors that included several other Yale faculty members, including the classicist Bernard Knox, Kenneth Douglas, a professor of French literature, and Rene Wellek, who was regarded as a founder of the study of comparative literature.
They initially secured a publishing contract with Prentice Hall, but the company pulled out after concluding the book was too risky an investment, according to Sarah Touborg, editor and vice president of Norton. They then tried Harcourt Brace to no avail. It was at Norton that Mack found an editor eager to embrace the project — George Brockway, who had been trained in literature at Yale. The first edition of what was then called “World Masterpieces” was published in 1956.
“Brockway was confident enough to swim against the tide and take a chance on what would become a bestseller,” Touborg said.
The name was changed to the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces in 1962. And then in 1999, the collection became The Norton Anthology of World Literature.
By the time Simon met Mack for the first time — at Mory’s, the famed Yale watering hole — he was 85 and the anthology was about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Mack wanted Simon to help shepherd a new expanded edition of the anthology, one that moved beyond a Western purview. Simon was only 27 and new to publishing, but Mack, he recalled, was gracious, as well as entertaining.
“Here’s a detail I will never forget,” he said. “As we left Mory’s and started walking together down York Street, becoming increasingly excited about the important changes planned for the anthology, Maynard proceeded to skip a few steps along the brick walkway! If I’m lucky enough to live to 85, I can only hope to have the same energy and joie de vivre that Maynard displayed that day.”
What to add? What to cut?
The anthology, which is most often assigned in first-year general education courses for undergraduates, has been used at nearly 800 schools across the United States, according to Touborg. It is revised every five to six years, a time-consuming process as permissions negotiations and costs for some of the works are “formidable,” she said.
Norton regularly surveys its adopters to find out what they want more or less of. In response to the latest feedback, the new edition is more inclusive, makes Indigenous voices and oral traditions more visible, and decenters the traditional European canon, Touborg said. A new feature is a section called the “translation lab,” which provides different translations of the same poetic text for students to compare and analyze.
Part of Lewis’s job as a volume editor is not only to decide what to add, but also what to remove as tastes, times, and sensibilities change. He makes these decisions after consulting with scholarly experts in areas he’s less versed in. Lewis, who taught both English 129 and Directed Studies before becoming dean, enjoys exploring broad stretches of literary history.
“There’s a sense of wanting to have more coverage and a wider range of places,” he said. “Our main target audience is American college students and that’s a very diverse group and includes a lot of immigrant kids who might be interested in reading a story about a place where their family came from.”
With each edition he also tries to align some of the new selections with important currents of the time. Two poems by poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, who is from the Marshall Islands, speak to the great challenges posed by climate change.
“She’s living in a country where sea level is rising above the level of the islands,” Lewis said. “She spoke to the United Nations in 2014 and read her poem ‘Dear Matafele Peinem,’ about what this meant for her country.”
In the same vein, feminism felt deserving of a nod in this edition, given the rise of the Me Too movement and feminist outrage over the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Hence the inclusion for the first time of an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“We have a preference where possible for including a whole work, but we’ve occasionally decided that a very significant chapter or set of chapters that introduces a novel can be a good way for a student to get some exposure,” Lewis said.
His responsibilities also include writing the short explanatory text that introduces each author and longer introductions to the periods covered, a task he relishes. The volume is divided into four sections: “Modernities and Modernisms, 1900-1945”; “Twentieth-Century Poetry”; “Postwar and Postcolonial Literature, 1945-1989”; and “Contemporary World Literature.”
The cover of the upcoming volume is a striking depiction of Circe, the goddess from “The Odyssey” who turned men into swine, as imagined by the Black collagist Romare Bearden. Circe is also the subject of the final poem in the “Twentieth-Century Poetry” section, and it too has a Yale connection.
It is “Circe’s Power,” a feminist retelling of Circe’s story written by Louise Glück, a Nobel Laureate, revered member of the Yale faculty, and much-lauded teacher and mentor who died last October.