research news

UB English professor reworks classic literary anthology


Published May 15, 2024

Rachel Ablow.
“I work primarily on the novel, so to really explore the poetry of the period and the nonfiction writers was illuminating. ”
Rachel Ablow, professor
Department of English

A UB English professor has played a major role in the sweeping revisions made recently to “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” a multi-volume collection of canonical literary works traditionally used in college classrooms but also enjoyed by general readers for more than 60 years.

Rachel Ablow, an expert in 19th-century literature and culture with research interests in the theory of the novel and the history of medicine, has co-edited with Catherine Robson, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of English, “The Victorian Age” — one of six volumes chronicling literary eras from the Middle Ages to the 21st century that comprise the entire collection — first published by W.W. Norton in 1962 and now in its 11th edition.

The anthology’s overhaul is the broadest and most comprehensive update in its history, with roughly a quarter of the 10th edition’s material either substantially revised or replaced, including revisions to all the headnotes and footnotes for the 11th edition.

But it’s not just “The Victorian Age” volume, which includes selections from the early-19th to the early-20th century, the approximate reign of Britian’s Queen Victoria, that has been reworked and repopulated with previously neglected writers.

Cover of "The Victorian Age".

The publisher sought new editors for every volume in the series, each of whom began work at the same time with a mandate to consider how a reconceptualization should look at a time of increased awareness of issues about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and empire, a subject profoundly relevant to the period and a topic that represents the main difference between the current edition of “The Victorian Age” and its predecessors.

“This volume really tries to mark the importance of the empire to the literature of the period, and to expand our notion of who defines English literature by including people who were subjects of empire, people who were writing in English and thinking in relation to English literary history, even if they were identifying as Canadian, South African or Indian, for instance,” says Ablow.

That includes Mahatma Gandhi, one of history’s most important anti-imperialists, yet a figure who was absent from previous anthologies.

“Particularly early on in his career, Gandhi was deeply influenced by the British political philosophy to which he was exposed while studying law in England. Some of this material is reproduced in this collection,” she says.

E. Pauline Johnson, another refreshing addition, was a Canadian poet of Mohawk and European descent who both laments the plight of the Mohawk people under imperialism, but also voices loyalty to Queen Victoria.

“I’m fascinated by the complicated national-colonial politics that Johnson plays out in her lyrical and beautiful poetry,” says Ablow.

The Victorians have an enduring appeal, whether we’re reading their novels, or watching a miniseries like “The Wire,” modeled on the form of the Victorian novel, or exploring the nonfiction writers of the time, according to Ablow.

“These writers worked with issues familiar to us, not just historically, but issues we’re seeing today: what modernization looks like; how we’re affected by technological change; how do our beliefs, ethics and values evolve in a rapidly changing world; and what counts as scientific evidence,” she says.

“We keep returning to figures like the Brontës, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin. They made our world by thinking through the implications of change, reliance on the free market, income distribution and the birth of modern democracy.”

There’s a lot to learn from “The Victorian Age,” and Ablow is the first to mention that editing the anthology has been an education for her.

“I work primarily on the novel, so to really explore the poetry of the period and the nonfiction writers was illuminating,” she says. “It’s also incredibly satisfying to include additional voices and see my students’ responses to finally having an anthology that includes voices they can identify with.

“The Victorian writers are among those who can help us understand more about where we are right now.”