Tag: Stephen Greenblatt

“Literature makes life much more worth living.”

Stephen Greenblatt, the current general editor of The Norton Anthology, and M. H. Abrams, the founding general editor, discuss the challenges facing the humanities curriculum and address the enduring question, Why study literature?

The Norton Anthology plays a crucial role in a humanities curriculum that is said to be under great pressure. Have you noticed the effects of this pressure?

Greenblatt: Of course we have noticed. The issue is not so much the anthology, but rather the fate of the whole enterprise of studying what Matthew Arnold called the best which has been thought and said in the world. For generations that enterprise occupied a key place in college and university education everywhere, but there are signs that it is in trouble. Humanities departments are fretting about a decline in majors, and those students who do major in literature, art, philosophy and history often clamor only for contemporary topics.

Has the Norton Anthology then lost its relevance?

Greenblatt: Not at all. The Norton Anthology was based on the idea that it actually matters to plunge into a comic masterpiece written in the 1300s or to weep at a tragedy performed in the 1700s. What would it mean for a culture to give up on its past? It is vitally important to remind people that the humanities carry the experience, the life-forms of those who came before us, into the present and into the future. Through reading literature we can make ghosts speak to us, and we can speak back to them. Besides — as many studies have shown — cultural knowledge turns out to be good for your career.

You have noted a turn away from the past among students and their teachers. Are there signs of a counter-trend back toward the basics?

Greenblatt: When I teach a course with my colleague Louis Menand that starts with Homer and goes up to Joyce, the pressure on enrollment is huge, because it turns out many students — without the compulsion of their teachers — feel that they really shouldn’t (should?) go through their undergraduate years without reading the great imaginative works of the past.

Abrams: One of the joys of teaching with the anthology is to watch the excitement grow as students, who may think the past dull and irrelevant, find how fresh and new and powerful are the kinds of writings that are hundreds of years old.


For a prospective undergraduate reading this Q. and A., how would you answer the question, Why study literature?

Abrams: 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 enjoyable. There’s no end to the response you can make to that question, but Stephen has a few things to add.

Greenblatt: Literature is the most astonishing technological means that humans have created, and now practiced for thousands of years, to capture experience. For me the thrill of literature involves entering into the life worlds of others. I’m from a particular, constricted place in time, and I suddenly am part of a huge world — other times, other places, other inner lives that I otherwise would have no access to.

Abrams: Yes. Literature makes life much more worth living.

Still curious? The ninth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature weighs in at six volumes (package 1 and 2) The single-volume eighth edition weighs in at a hefty 3024 pages.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of the most important person you’ve probably never heard of: Poggio Bracciolini.

Although Bracciolini’s contribution to society can’t be measured directly, we feel the effects of it to this day. He was, perhaps, the greatest book hunter in the world. And one of his finds would significantly alter the course of history. Located in a German monastery, Bracciolini found the last surviving manuscript of Lucretius’ poem On The Nature Of Things, which had been lost for more than a thousand years. It’s survival was pure luck.

What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy—the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book—should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.

The twin pillars of the poem were the denial of the afterlife and the denial of Providence. To Christians the book was filled with scandalous ideas.

…the recovery and recirculation of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things had succeeded in linking the very idea of atoms, as the ultimate substrate of all things that exists, with a house of other, dangerous claims. Detached from any text, the idea that all things might consist of innumerable invisible particles did not seem particularly disturbing. After all, the world had to consist of something. But Lucretius’ poem restored to atoms their missing context, and the implications—for morality, politics, ethics, and theology—were deeply upsetting.

“In a universe so constituted,” Greenblatt writes, “Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and remaking of forms.”

Anyone arguing “there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design,” could not expect a warm welcome in ancient Rome. “The difficulty was not in reading the poem but in discussing its content openly or taking its ideas seriously.” Bracciolini, without having read the poem, had “unleashed something that threatened his whole mental universe,” something that helped abate the power of the very institution he once served.

By the time the clergymen prohibited the reading of the poem it was too late. Editions began popping up all over from Paris to Bologna. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, much of what Lucretius claimed in On The Nature Of Things seems deeply familiar.