The Norton Anthology of English Literature celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year – now in its eighth edition and in paperback. Do you still have that mammoth hardback book from your college days? in your bookcase? as a doorstop? Mine traveled across an ocean, before being donated to make room on a small bookshelf. Founding editor, M.H. Abrams and current editor, Stephen Greenblatt, discuss the relevance of the tome still used in introductory college literature classes in a short article in the New York Times book review section – Built to Last.
When asked why anyone should study literature, Abrams answered:
“Ha – Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life more enjoyable…much more worth living.”
As an English literature major, my collection went on to include many of the authors sprinkled throughout – a taste of writing from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shakespeare to Joseph Conrad in the twentieth century. So, of course, I agree with Abrams. How about you?
A local book club’s pick of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder led me to rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The similarities are hard to miss: the menacing jungle (Africa for Conrad, Brazil for Patchett); the main character who manipulates the ignorant natives ( Kurtz vs Dr. Swenson); the ruthless, greedy corporation willing to destroy a way of life in the name of progress (ivory merchants in Africa; pharmaceutical companies in Brazil).
Both authors use brutal realism, with Patchett offering some respite in romance, while Conrad mires in the worst of humanity. Both use their talents for phrasing to capture the reader.
“Marina brushed her hand across the back of her neck and dislodged something with a hard shell. She had learned in time to brush instead of slap as slapping only served to pump the entire contents of the insect which was doubtlessly already burrowed into the skin with some entomological protuberance, straight into the bloodstream.” Patchett, State of Wonder
“I tried to break the spell–the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness–that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.”
Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Conrad wrote his cautionary tale over 100 years ago (1903). Not much has changed it seems, just the players and the place, continuing the universal themes of greed and ethics.
If you haven’t yet read State of Wonder, the review here might tempt you. The classic Heart of Darkness is available free online.