Exploring Anthologies of Early American Literature

About the Project

As a relatively recent field of study, early American literature has seen its canonical outlines shift rapidly in the last several decades, even as core elements remain the same. Starting with the publication of the first Norton Anthology of American Literature in 1979 and following each subsequent edition, we can see how the contents of the field have grown and what texts form an ongoing core. As the Norton anthologies expanded over the years, they found healthy competition from the Heath Anthology of American Literature (first published in 1990), which offered a more expansive interpretation of American literature.  Both anthologies tell a story—in fact, multiple stories—of early American literature, stories which come into view once the data has been gathered, sorted, and displayed.

Exploring Anthologies of Early American Literature tracks every author and every text included in every edition of either the Norton or the Heath Anthology of American Literature, limited to “early America” (as demarcated in the anthologies). By setting one edition next to another, we can graph change over time. Specifically, this resource categorizes and compares editions through both page number and percentage on questions of diversity and inclusion, comparing editions by their variety of authors, which are tracked and graphed by place of birth, race, and sex. Finally, this website graphs how much our anthologies have emphasized New England writers or the place of Puritanism in early American literature over time—and whether it varies from one edition to the next.

Tools and Features

Beyond the overall demographics, the digital tool also has other features that allow for more granular analysis of individual authors and texts. Users of the resource can examine which selections from which authors get included in each edition, so that scholars of early American literature can see how particular authors are presented to readers over time. Moreover, they can see when authors first make an appearance (what year, what edition), and they can select multiple authors to compare how much room is given to each writer over different editions from year to year.

In addition to graphing authors and individual selections, the website also offers two quick tools to give a sense of changing editions over time. The top ten tool tallies authors by page number and lists the top ten in each edition. This way, a scholar or teacher can compare who gets the most space in our anthologies and how that changes over time. The first five tool, meanwhile, simply lists the first five texts in order for each edition of the anthologies. This tool shows how different anthologies have changed their presentation of the beginnings of early American literature over time.

Ultimately, we hope that Exploring Early American Anthologies will be of service to scholars in many different domains of early American studies, opening new questions, findings, and possibilities by displaying in an accessible and explorable manner what two dominant anthologies have printed for class, year after year and edition to edition.

Future Directions

Exploring Early American Anthologies is an ongoing project, which we plan to improve and expand in multiple ways. First, we hope to receive feedback, correct errors, and adjust author demographics according to the input of fellow early American scholars. Second, we plan to include future editions of Norton and Heath anthologies as they appear, expanding the database. And third, we plan to add other early American anthologies as we are able. There are a host of anthologies out there, some in multiple editions and others in single versions, and we will include as many as possible as the site grows.

Beyond these relatively simple (though labor-intensive) measures of correction and expansion, we also plan to add future elements of analysis. First, we want to add a category for genre, to track whether the relative weight assigned to particular genres has changed through the years. That can take place on a broad level (non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and drama), but also, we hope, on a more particular level (sermons, autobiographies, and so forth). Second, we plan to add a teaching component. Studying syllabi accessed through the Open Syllabus Project and the syllabus exchange of the Society of Early Americanists, we want to present a model of what gets taught (or at least assigned) alongside what the anthologies actually contain. This will produce a more robust picture of early American literature through the years.

Exploring Early American Anthologies and its composite data are a collaborative project between faculty, staff, and graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis.  We invite you to explore the many options available and discover new stories to tell.