Commentary

Editor’s Notebook: The barn anthologies

November 16, 2021 5:54 pm
Books on a window sill next to a plant, with a brick building in the background

The anthologies – including the Norton Anthology of American Literature and “our Perrine” – have a new home in the Bulletin office on North Main Street in Concord. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

I awoke Monday morning to a New Hampshire wrapped in misty November gray, and so I thought I’d do a little catching up with Nathaniel Hawthorne – a misty November gray kind of guy.

But he was nowhere to be found.

Like a lot of his contemporaries, Hawthorne resides in my barn. The lucky ones get a spot in a couple of well-worn steamer trunks and an old upholstered ottoman with inside storage, while others are sheltering beneath hastily constructed workbenches not currently in use. Too many are out in the open, vulnerable not only to moisture and dust but the droppings of critters on high-fiber diets.

If I treated my books as well as they have treated me, every wall in the house would be lined with built-in bookcases. Instead, when we moved a few years back I made hundreds of unpleasant little decisions about which volumes would stay warm and dry in the house on our limited shelving and which would become bathroom reading for chipmunks and squirrels. Apparently old Nathaniel didn’t make the cut, and that’s why I found myself hunting for his collected works by lantern light early on Monday morning. (I’ll qualify the anachronism by reporting that it was a Coleman lantern powered by D batteries.)

I checked the trunks and all the stacks, checked them again, and still no Hawthorne. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the other exiled volumes resorted to mockery: 

“Why would anybody not named Ed Muskie have so many books about Ed Muskie?” 

“Lots of sailing books for someone whose ‘life on the sea’ amounts to 30 minutes in a rented catamaran in 1988.” 

“That ‘SAS Survival Handbook’ will surely come in handy should things go sideways during your next summer stroll up Mount Kearsarge.”

Just as the mockery seemed on the verge of devolving into straight-up bullying, I spotted it out of the corner of my eye. Not Hawthorne’s collected stories but the next best thing: “The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 1, Third Edition.” Even with tissue-paper pages, Norton is thick and heavy, beginning with somnolent 17th-century works by John Smith, Thomas Morton, and John Winthrop and ending with the 19th-century brilliance of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson (although, in fairness, Rebecca Harding Davis gets the last word). The first half is dominated by Founding Fathers of America – Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson – but the second half belongs to the Founding Fathers of American Literature – Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and, of course, Hawthorne.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Volume 1, and the anthologies that came before and after, helped set the course of my life.

The first one I remember really grabbing me is titled “Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense,”  but my high school English teacher simply called it “our Perrine” after the textbook’s author, Laurence Perrine. (“Let’s turn ‘our Perrine’ to page 441, Alice Walker’s ‘To Hell with Dying.’”) If I didn’t fully understand the draw of that particular anthology back then, I do now: Graham Greene, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Jackson, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot – the list goes on and on.

I work with words for a living now because of what they all did for a lonely, awkward kid back then. The anthologies belong inside, where it’s dry and warm, and so they shall return.

As much as I’d love to tell you a little bit about Volume 2 of the Norton anthology – you wouldn’t believe who shows up for that one – and both volumes of the “Anthology of English Literature,” it seems only fair that I end with a tribute to the poor soul who was swallowed up by an old barn: “He paused, in a lull of the tempest that had driven him onward, and heard the swell of what seemed a hymn, rolling solemnly from a distance, with the weight of many voices. He knew the tune; it was a familiar one in the choir of the village meeting-house. The verse died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together. Goodman Brown cried out; and his cry was lost to his own ear, by its unison with the cry of the desert.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 1835)

How hauntingly beautiful. As I said, Hawthorne is a misty November gray kind of guy. 

The editor is on vacation next week, so the Editor’s Notebook will return on Dec. 1.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.

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