Michael and Diane Ravitch write in the introduction to their new work, The English Reader that “The English Reader is an invitation to browse through some of the greatest passages of English literature…They are words that, by and large, every educated person used to know and should know now.” We were certainly intrigued, that and the collection of authors ranging from John Milton to Winston Churchill had us glued to this book ever since it first arrived from the warehouse. We were lucky enough to get this esteemed pair to answer some questions for us about how one indexes the English cannon.
OUP: The English Reader is a somewhat unconventional and eclectic mix of English prose and poetry. What was the thinking behind the selection process?
Michael and Diane Ravitch: One of the most exciting aspects of selecting the pieces for The English Reader was this unusual task of blending poetry and prose. We assigned ourselves a dual mission: to include the greatest and most influential passages of English literature, and to tell the reader a story about English intellectual history. Since our book is intended for the general reader, the selections are extremely diverse. For the poetry, we included most of the standard classic anthology pieces, but we also tried to put in a few surprises. We excerpted passages from great but less famous epic poems such as William Blake’s “The Four Zoas” and Lord Byron’s “Don Juan.” At the same time we included a few poems on the grounds of their popularity in their own day, such as Felicia Hemans’ poem “Casabianca,” which generations of school-children once studied, and some later poets parodied.
The prose ranges even more widely. Certain pieces are intellectual and literary landmarks, such as the excerpts from Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and from Edmund Burke‘s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” For some of the other prose writers, the choice was not so simple. If we couldn’t find a particularly famous essay or speech, we would choose instead a piece that both appealed to us greatly and that accurately represented the author’s style and their point of view. As a consequence, alongside the more famous selections, we have some rarely anthologized pieces, such as “Man is a Toad-Eating Animal” by William Hazlitt. This essay not only displays his wonderful imaginative prose but it shows how radical British intellectuals and Romantic poets were fired up by the French Revolution. It is a good companion piece to the excerpt from Edmund Burke, who opposed the revolution.
We also included songs, political speeches and sermons, all of which are usually segregated into their own separate anthologies. By mixing them all up, fascinating connections become apparent. All these forms of expression are arguments, in their own way, different voices in a four hundred year dialogue about love and death, democracy and religion, individualism and patriotism.
OUP: You have included folks from Darwin to Donne, Shakespeare to Shelley, Wilde to Woolf, but these literary lions by no means dominate the selections in the collection. What have we been overlooking in English lit?
M & D Ravitch: What has been most overlooked? Perhaps the prose. Literary studies generally neglect the glorious tradition of non-fiction prose in English. Very few people have read a word of John Ruskin or John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold, and yet their ideas have exerted a tremendous influence on contemporary life. They are also splendid writers, who use the English language in unforgettable ways.
OUP: In pulling the collection together did you yourself stumble upon a literary gem that surprised you?
There were a few great poems that we didn’t know until we put together The English Reader. One is “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith. The themes of the poem seem very contemporary. He excoriates excessive luxury and how globalization destroys traditional ways of life. But he does so in language which is nothing short of astonishing. Another poem we fell in love with was “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti. It has a wonderful fairy-tale atmosphere and a hypnotic rhythm. And considering how devout Rossetti was, her most famous poem is awfully weird, full of all kinds of interesting innuendo.
OUP: How long does it take to pull a great collection like this together, and how do you say yes to one particular piece from an author and no to another? How does one whittle down Wordsworth?
M & D Ravitch: We tried to include the works which contain the author’s most memorable phrases. At the same time, we wanted only pieces which would be interesting for a contemporary audience from beginning to end. So if a great line lay in the middle of a dull work, we would generally choose something else. We also didn’t want the excerpts to be short and choppy; we tried whenever we could to have complete pieces. Thus with George Orwell, for example, we wanted to include his wonderful essay on “Politics and the English Language” but it turned out to be extremely long and difficult to break up in pieces. Instead we found another essay called “England, My England,” a lesser-known but wonderfully written essay reflecting on very Orwellian themes: social class, patriotism, wartime, and the flaws and virtues of the English people.
In the case of Wordsworth, some of the choices were obvious. Such poems as “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” or “Ode: On Intimations of Immortality” are essential to English literature. Since Wordsworth wrote so many famous poems, we couldn’t include them all. But we tried to save room for a more eclectic choice, the “Boy of Winander” passage from his great epic autobiography, “The Prelude.” It is a famous passage among literary scholars, but less well-known among the general public.
OUP: Can you give us an example of a piece that you wanted to include but eventually decided did not make the cut?
M & D Ravitch: There were many great authors we didn’t have the room to include. We didn’t want to throw the reader into works which require a huge degree of contextual information in order to understand and appreciate them. We tended to gravitate towards pieces which revolved around the cultural themes prompting this anthology. Some things were cut simply for reason of length. For example, we almost included a second essay by Virginia Woolf entitled “How Should One Read a Book?” It ended with this wonderful passage:
“Yet who reads to bring about an end however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerers and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their awards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
OUP: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a personal favorite of mine. Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?
Diane: “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins; I memorized it in college and have never forgotten it. Even now I sometimes recite it to myself, just to keep it fresh in my mind. It speaks to me of life and death, of the sadness that awaits us all, and of persistence despite the inevitability of adversity.
Michael: “To Autumn”, by Keats. Perhaps the perfect poem, in my view. The music of the lines, the sensuousness of its descriptions, the richness and complexity of the emotions. And yet it somehow feels wonderfully natural and spontaneous at the same time.