In the last forty years, the American literary canon has changed dramatically. If you go back to Norton American literature anthologies from the late 1960s and early 1970s, you’ll notice that most of the writers are white men, a dozen or so are white women, and a few are Jewish or African-American men. Skipping ahead to the late 1970, you’ll find that not much has changed except for the inclusion of more women and African-American writers—and the inclusion of memoirs, letters, and journals. By the mid-1990s to the present, you get more Hispanic writers, Asian-American writers, Native American writers, African-American women, one Indian-American writer, and writing with more overt LGBT themes. Still missing from the anthologies, however, is writing from Muslim-American authors and authors from a number of other American communities, including the Mormons.
The exclusion of these groups from what is supposed to be multi-cultural cross-section of American literature is understandable. Aside from the fact that the Norton Anthology of American Literature is already too big for most college freshmen to carry around in their backpacks, the expectation that a single-volume anthology—or even a multi-volume anthology like the unabridged Norton—can give everyone a place at the table is perhaps too much for editors who have to juggle the politics and economics of anthologizing. In her preface to the Shorter 8th Edition of the Norton, Nina Baym describes the challenges of balancing “traditional interests” with “developing critical concerns” in writers and groups that have not always been a “part of the standard canon.” Recalling the “so-called canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s,” she suggests that while an awareness of extra-canonical writing has changed “our understanding of American literature” and “enlarged the number and diversity of authors now recognized as contributors to the totality of American literature,” canon-expansion remains an ongoing task—often dependent on the suggestions and recommendations of teachers and students (xxi-xxii).
As a literary critic with interests (and faith) in Mormon literature, I believe that Mormon literature will someday have a place in an American literary anthology like the Norton—especially if Mormonism remain as visible as it has over the past decade. Some grassroots lobbying will have to happen, of course, from teachers and students who believe Mormon literature has a place alongside the canonized, but that will come as more scholars and teachers turn to Mormon literature as a field of study. Besides, if the trend Norton set with its anthology continues, it will eventually be in search of more minority voices. (It’s promising, I think, that Baym has written about nineteenth-century Mormon women writers in her latest book. That’s progress, right?) I imagine we’ll see more Muslim-American writers anthologized within the next decade or so, along with more emerging writers from groups that are already represented in the anthology. With excellent literary anthologies of their own, can the Mormons be that far behind?
So, here’s my question: when time comes to canonize and anthologize the Mormon writers, who will they be? And why?