When I was a freshman at Hobart and William Smith colleges, the very first books I bought from the college bookstore were two preliminary required texts for my freshman seminar: an American Heritage College Dictionary and M.H. Abrams’s A Glossary of Literary Terms, which I read devotedly throughout my undergraduate and graduate literary studies. The feeling of being young and hungry for knowledge, seeking out definitions and ideas, is one I associate with the Glossary, as well as the Norton Anthologies, as I dog-eared them during formative years of literary inquiry.
In retrospect, this seems like a tender time; it was in late high school and early college that Brit Lit and the Romantics captivated my imagination, and perhaps no one more than Abrams was responsible for shaping not only what I was taught about these literary eras, but also, as the founding editor of the Norton English Literature Anthologies, which texts we encountered in the classroom.
M.H. Abrams will turn 100 years old next week, and this weekend Cornell is honoring him with a series of exciting tributary programming. It will begin with a conversation and reception at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 21 in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall, in which Abrams will reflect on his career and the developments he’s witnessed in literary studies.
On Sunday, from 12:30-2:30 p.m. in the A.D. White House, there will be an “Open Mike for Mike” event in which friends, students, colleagues and admirers will have up to five minutes to pay tribute to Abrams and recite poems in his honor. These tributes will be videotaped, and W.W. Norton has arranged for those who can’t make the events to send their own tribute videos; Harold Bloom and Robert Pinksy are among those who have sent moving messages of gratitude to Abram that will be played as part of the event.
Finally, at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 22 in Hollis, Abrams will lecture on his most recent book, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem. Guest speakers will make remarks on the book, and a reception will follow; all events are free and open to the public.
Now a professor emeritus, Abrams is widely known as one of the most distinguished scholars to ever teach at Cornell. Besides his half century of work as the founding editor of the ubiquitous Norton Anthology of English literature, he also wrote two pillars of contemporary literary criticism in The Mirror and The Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, and Natural Supernaturalism, which he referred to when I asked him what he felt most proud of when he looked back over his century of literary work.
“The Mirror and the Lamp was important criticism of literature,” he said, “and it is the better known of my books, but Natural Supernaturalism asks the great questions of what’s involved in human life.”
The latter book, published in 1973, explores themes of transformation and redemption, and may have been relevant to more people rather than just to specialists, he noted. “Anyway, it’s my own favorite; it feels more central.”
“Natural Supernaturalism is a stunning work of literary thought and history,” said Roger Gilbert, chair of Cornell’s English Department. “It identifies some basic myths and patterns that are clearly important to a whole range of literary works. It is a very ambitious work and a long book that covers a tremendous amount of literary history. It has an encyclopedic quality to it, and you can dip into its short inter-related essays.”
Abrams has often said he chose English as a field of study because there weren’t any jobs in any field at the time, and he figured he might as well starve doing something that he liked instead of starving while doing something he disliked.
Born in Long Branch, N.J., in 1912, he went to Harvard in 1930, where he completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees; The Mirror and the Lamp grew out of his Ph.D dissertation. I asked him if he would give the same advice to students who wanted to study English today, to which he replied that there weren’t any jobs in English back then either, and added, “it’s not like that now. It’s not like the Great Depression (when you had business men) selling apples in the streets to stay alive. We didn’t have the social net we have now.”
“He is so closely identified with Cornell’s English department, and he has chosen to stay here, which is itself a striking fact,” Gilbert said. “He could have spent his career going from one prestigious school to another, but he elected to stay here, and I expect he told you of his warm feelings about Ithaca. We’re grateful he’s remained so dedicated. He has been a colleague and a mentor to faculty and to the students he’s taught, and he really has just put a stamp on this department like no one else. “
“I would also say,” Gilbert added, “that’s it’s so remarkable how active he’s been up to the present. He published a book at 22, and now he is 100, publishing another book, having published in every decade in between. His is model of the intellectual journey in which every stage breaks new ground. It is incredibly moving and inspiring to see how he has insisted on remaining engaged, thinking new thoughts, and being aware of what is happening in the world of literary studies.”
The Norton Anthology evolved out of a course he was teaching at Cornell, Abrams said. The president of Norton devised a way of publishing a lot of text on Bible paper in single columns on the same page, and because of this, the book could be both comprehensive and portable. One of Abrams’ colleagues recommended him for the task:
“He said Mike Abrams across the quadrangle is teaching that kind of course,” Abrams said, “so he came over and persuaded me to make an anthology based on the course. I thought it would take four months and it took four years. I thought it would sell for four years and it’s been selling for a half century. Life is full of surprises, and that was one of the better ones.”
What is striking is the collaborative nature of each edition: rather than the selections being under the single purview of the editor, the entire project was actually quite interactive.
“Of course I developed a staff of coeditors,” he said. “That was fortunate, and we quickly developed a way to form new editions. We developed an elaborate set of questionnaires that we sent out to thousands of users of the anthology. They would answer questions about which pieces they often assigned, and how often, and which ones were never assigned.”
They also answered questions on which pieces they thought should be added to the anthology, Abrams said, and though the final judgments were made by the editors, these questionnaires provided the guidance and a base for selection decisions.
“That was what we had to go on,” he said, “the expressed usage and desires for change and improvements from hundreds of people who actually taught the anthology, and we also elicited feedback from students, who would write, ‘This is great, but why don’t you add this or that piece?’
“So each edition was a collaboration between editors, users, teachers, and students,” he continued. “That’s the way to keep the thing vital and alive and current. We didn’t want to impose our judgments on people, and there were limitless possibilities, so we went with the flow, and trusted it was going somewhere.”
I asked Abrams if he was ever surprised by the choices, likes, and dislikes of students or teachers in these questionnaires:
“There were some surprises,” he said, “but I no longer remember (specifically). Some of them seemed eccentric, some of them plausible. After a while, it was getting painful. For each edition, we had to painfully let go of something we thought was great. It’s hard work, emotionally trying work. Your ego gets involved, you have to be persuaded to change something, and you have to let yourself be persuaded.”
“Mike is an uncanny reader of his audience,” said Julia Reidhead, vice president and editorial director at W.W. Norton, who has worked directly with Mike on several Norton anthologies since 1992. “With his deep understanding of what literature teachers and students need, he was able over tempestuous decades to keep the anthologies responsive to change but true to their core editorial principles.”
“He was also intensively competitive,” she added, “defending the Norton Anthology against upstart rivals. That combination of teacherly wisdom and publishing smarts is why Mike’s phenomenally successful inventions--the Norton Anthologies and the Norton Critical Editions—are still thriving after 50 years. They are perhaps the greatest success story in college publishing, and they are unquestionably the cornerstone of W. W. Norton & Company.”
Abrams was perfectly discreet in not mentioning either specific texts that were cut or specific students who he mentored. Although he has taught literary legends such as Thomas Pynchon and Harold Bloom, he said he didn’t want to talk about particular students because he couldn’t talk about them all, and he didn’t want any students he didn’t mention to feel left out. But he did speak of teaching as his chosen profession with warm and lively affection and enthusiasm.
“Every time you teach it’s like facing a new class for the first time,” he said. “You’re nervous; I think if you stop being nervous about teaching, your teaching becomes dull.” Finding new aspects and new points of relevance was how he refreshed the text for himself, he said, is how he was able to keep his teaching practice vital: “You have to get excited about it; that’s what keeps you from being bored to death and the students from being bored to death by a boring teacher.”
This insistence on, or dedication to, constant renewal and revision, is evident as one of the hallmarks of Abrams’ legacy and life.
“The editor of Norton insisted that the anthology has to change to keep up with the times,” Gilbert said, “that it has to change as people’s sense of literature changes. Mike has made sure the anthology reflects those changes; he could have rested on his laurels, but he wanted to see what new things were happening. With the Glossary of Literary Terms, he was constantly updating it, adding new concepts and terms to reflect what people are doing in criticism and scholarship. He also learned about deconstruction; he didn’t ignore it, and he wrote appraisals of his own work in this new light.”
The guiding metaphors in The Mirror and the Lamp revolve around the idea that pre-Romantic writers sought to depict the world around them as a reflection, while Romantic writers imagined their writing as the light of their soul shining through and illuminating the world around them. When I asked how one might extend the metaphor, Gilbert mentioned the postmodern symbol of the labyrinth, but then referenced a John Ashbery poem:
“One of my favorite John Ashbery poems is ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,’” he said, “in which the self is distorted; it’s interesting to think about a work like that as a synthesis but also variation of those basic metaphors.”
Abrams is an avid collector of fine arts, and his home felt like a miniature Metropolitan Museum of Art; I sat on his couch under a Calder, surrounded by Ming vases and Oceanic sculptures as we talked. He is said to have never have missed a Cornell football home game, and during World War II, he helped to develop the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet known as Able Baker (which includes “Mike” for “M”).
“I was working in a lab,” he said, “overcoming problems of communications and noisy backgrounds of machinery, testing equipment to be able to communicate better.” This involved the study of speech and phonetics, he said, and I asked him if this work had provoked or influenced the main ideas in Fourth Dimension of a Poem
“I think it probably did,” he said, but noted it was not until much later that he started integrating these different fields of study. “As years go by, all this becomes part of your background and shows up in the places you least expect it.”
The idea that the physical production of a poem “begins next to the heart and ends near the brain” is a starting point for Fourth Dimension: “we produce those sounds by varying the pressure on the lungs, vibrating or stilling the vocal cords, changing the shape of the throat and mouth, and making wonderfully precise movements of the tongue and lips,” he writes. The first essay in the book references as an example the first lines of Lolita, and how the third sentence breaks down the steps to the physical production of the name of the famous nymphette: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
“Anyone who speaks the poem produces it with his or her body,” said Abrams, “interior, intimate parts of the body.”
The importance of phonetics is not only related to the feel of uttering the syllables but is often very close to the meanings of the words, Abrams said, “especially with what’s called the iconic relation, the reduplication in the process of utterance.” After analyzing the fourth dimension of a poem, “the poem hasn’t radically changed,” Abrams said, but you are more distinctly aware of how you’re experiencing the poem.
As for turning 100? “It’s nothing I worked on, I assure you,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know why people think you somehow deserve it, you don’t deserve it or not deserve it, it happens to you.” One day at a time, and moderation rather than total denial of alcohol and other pleasures were the only comments Abrams made about living to 100. And when asked who we should be reading now, Abrams said he enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novels.
“I felt I was part of the ultimate insiders’ poetry seminar,” Reidhead said about her experience of traveling to Ithaca last December to hear Abrams record poetry readings to accompany his new book. Indeed, time spent in Abrams’ company lends that effect, and it was moving for me to ask him to autograph my old copy of Glossary of Literary Terms at the end of our interview, which he graciously did.
“Mike saved Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” for last,” Reidhead said, “commenting that he might not have the stamina for all 159 lines. But when he began to read, his energy intensified, and as he spoke the lines, they became unforgettably alive. What a gift this great teacher gave me that day, as he has for the decades we have worked together.”