Levine keeps the 'Norton Anthology of World Literature' fresh

Caroline Levine

As the 19th-century editor for the “Norton Anthology of World Literature,” Caroline Levine has radically revised the collection’s structure and selections. For the recently released 2017 edition, she added a Poetry & Politics section; for the 2012 edition, she inaugurated a section on “orature,” oral poems and stories, which continues in the new volume.

The anthology includes literary works from ancient to modern times. Levine is responsible only for works published or produced in the 19th century, but for places like Africa that had lively oral cultures, Levine said it seemed like a mistake to focus only on written stories and poetry. “The orature section includes legends of Anansi, which originated in Africa and traveled on slave ships to the United States, Caribbean and Latin America. Such stories are undateable, so we put them in the 19th-century volume as a way to introduce students to the influence of oral traditions around the world.”

The oratory section also includes wisdom poetry from Madagascar and some European folk tales. “Most people in 18th-century Europe couldn’t read, so it’s wrong to think about culture exclusively through the written word,” Levine noted.

The anthology includes texts in translation, which Levine has spent years collecting. Each section and selection has an introduction written by Levine, the David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of Humanities in the Department of English.

Pointing out that “world literature” is a focus of debate in the field of literature, Levine said the most controversial aspect of the anthology is a willingness to read and teach in translation. “Some people think you should only read in the original and teach languages so people can read that way. Others think an anthology like this swallows up all specificity, that there should be one book for Vietnam and one for each other place. But you can’t learn all languages, so you have to read in translation. It’s good for all of us to be exposed to as many literary traditions as we can be.”

Levine stays in touch with teachers of world literature around the country to ensure that each new edition of the “Norton Anthology” retains widely taught texts and offers the variety needed in the classroom, as the anthology is primarily a pedagogical tool. As an example, she said there is widespread demand from teachers for more women writers, which the new edition addresses. The Poetry & Politics section, for instance, includes the poem on which the Puerto Rican national anthem is based. “That original poem, written by a woman, was very bloody,” Levine said. “It got sanitized in the song.”

The headnotes in the anthology follow a consistent format to help students make sense of unfamiliar worlds. “We’re not supposed to interpret the work but to orient students,” explained Levine. “This is Norton policy. We’re focused on a pedagogical mission. I enjoyed imagining students with no background encountering the texts and helping them get pleasure and knowledge from them.”

Levine’s books include “The Serious Pleasures of Suspense,” winner of the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies; “Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts” and “Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network,” winner of the Modern Language Association’s Lowell Prize. She is the executive producer of the College of Arts and Sciences “What Makes Us Human?” podcast.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Jeff Tyson