M.H. Abrams, Nor­ton an­thol­ogy founder, dead at 102


M.H. Abrams, an es­teemed critic, teacher and tastemaker who helped shape the mod­ern lit­er­ary canon as found­ing edi­tor of the Nor­ton An­thol­ogy of English Lit­er­a­ture and joined the elite him­self by writ­ing one of the 20th cen­tury’s most ac­claimed works of crit­i­cism, has died. He was 102.

Abrams’ death was con­firmed to The As­so­ci­ated Press on Wed­nes­day by Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent David J. Sko­r­ton, who de­clined to give de­tails. Ac­cord­ing to the web­site of the Ithaca-based uni­ver­sity, where he was a long­time mem­ber of the English depart­ment, Abrams died Tues­day at the re­tire­ment com­mu­nity Ken­dal at Ithaca. No cause of death was given.

While at Cor­nell in the 1950s, Abrams was asked by pub­lisher W.W. Nor­ton to lead a team of ed­i­tors com­pil­ing ex­cerpts of vi­tal English works. The first edi­tion of the Nor­ton An­thol­ogy came out in 1962 and was an im­me­di­ate suc­cess. Abrams stayed on through seven edi­tions, into his 80s, as the book be­came re­quired read­ing — or pe­rus­ing — for mil­lions of col­lege stu­dents.

Abrams also wrote sev­eral books, no­tably the 1953 pub­li­ca­tion “The Mir­ror and the Lamp,” a ground­break­ing work of lit­er­ary the­ory that cel­e­brated By­ron, Keats and other Bri­tish Ro­man­tic po­ets and pop­u­lar­ized a field of study that em­pha­sized how au­thors’ lives and feel­ings in­flu­enced their work. “The Mir­ror and the Lamp” was ranked No. 25 on a Mod­ern Li­brary list of the great­est English-lan­guage non­fic­tion books of the 20th cen­tury.

In the years be­fore “The Mir­ror and the Lamp,” the Ro­man­tics had been ef­fec­tively den­i­grated by T.S. Eliot, who found By­ron to have a “dis­or­derly mind, and an un­in­ter­est­ing one” and be­lieved Keats and Shel­ley “not nearly such great po­ets as they are sup­posed to be.” He val­ued rea­son and re­straint, stat­ing that a poem’s mean­ing should be clear.

But Abrams coun­tered that the Ro­man­tics changed and en­riched the his­tory of po­etry by free­ing the emo­tions and imag­i­na­tion. The Ro­man­tics broke from the ideal of cap­tur­ing the real world (a mir­ror) and in­stead com­posed “lamps,” il­lu­mi­nat­ing the poet’s

per­sonal vi­sion.

‘Is it sin­cere? Is it gen­uine?’

“The first test any poem must pass is no longer, ‘Is it true to na­ture...?’” Abrams wrote, “but a cri­te­rion look­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion; namely, `Is it sin­cere? Is it gen­uine?’”

Abrams’ other books in­cluded the in­flu­en­tial so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory “Nat­u­ral Su­per­nat­u­ral­ism” and “The Milk of Par­adise.” In July 2012, the es­say col­lec­tion “The Fourth Di­men­sion of a Poem” was pub­lished to mark his 100th birth­day. In July 2014, he re­ceived a Na­tional Arts Medal for “ex­pand­ing our per­cep­tions of the Ro­man­tic tra­di­tion and broad­en­ing the study of lit­er­a­ture.”

A son of Rus­sian Jewish immi- grants, Meyer Howard Abrams was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jer­sey. As a child, he spoke Yid­dish un­til age 5 and loved read­ing so much he would bor­row up to three books at a time from the li­brary and then re­turn the next day for more. He was a schol­ar­ship stu­dent at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity — and one of the few Jews then per­mit­ted at Har­vard — and later won a schol­ar­ship to Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity. He joined the Cor­nell fac­ulty in 1945 and es­tab­lished him­self as the teacher of a popular in­tro­duc­tory sur­vey class, with stu­dents in­clud­ing such fu­ture lit­er­ary stars as the nov­el­ist Thomas Pyn­chon (who sub­mit­ted a term pa­per so ac­com­plished that Abrams sus­pected — wrongly — it was pla­gia­rized) and the critic Harold Bloom.

Known fondly to Bloom and oth­ers as “Mike” Abrams, he mod­eled his work for Nor­ton on his lit­er­a­ture course. At the time Abrams was com­mis­sioned for the an­thol­ogy, each book a stu­dent read in many English de­part­ments “was treated as an ob­ject in it­self, to be read and in­ter­preted and ad­mired in­de­pen­dently of its his­tor­i­cal set­ting,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press in 1999.

Abrams and his col­leagues “be­lieved that to un­der­stand lit­er­a­ture you had to un­der­stand its place in his­tory and cul­ture.”

Abrams ex­per­i­mented with con­tent and form. When he was an un­der­grad­u­ate at Har­vard, an­tholo­gies were grim, square vol­umes with dou­ble-col­umn print­ing on each page — printed as if the verses of Homer were no dif­fer­ent from a ta­ble of prime num­bers. Abrams in­no­vated with sin­gle col­umns and the kind of fine, thin pa­per used for high-priced Bibles, mak­ing the an­thol­ogy por­ta­ble. The pref­ace of the first edi­tion promised a vol­ume that “can not only be car­ried ev­ery­where, but read any­where, in one’s own pri­vate room, in the class­room, or un­der a tree.”

The an­thol­ogy was con­ceived when the canon was over­whelm­ingly white and male, but Abrams and his fel­low ed­i­tors opened up over the fol­low­ing decades, in­clud­ing women and “post-colo­nial” au­thors such as Sal­man Rushdie, Chinua Achebe and V.S. Naipaul. Nor­ton, mean­while, is­sued nu­mer­ous sep­a­rate an­tholo­gies that in­cluded vol­umes on African-Amer­i­can writ­ers, Lati­nos and non­fic­tion au­thors.

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