The Norton Anthology of English Literature was first published in 1962. W. W. Norton & Company initially published two versions; the first being two volumes and more expensive than the second, which was a one volume version, entitled The Major Authors Edition. This is the one I have. The Major Authors Edition has 2658 pages, starting with Beowulf and ending with T.S. Eliot who died in 1965. As far as I can tell, Elliot was the only writer who lived to see himself included in the iconic anthology of English Literature. There have been nine editions in the last 50 years with over eight million copies in print in 2006. A paperback version in three volumes is sold at my community college book store for students currently enrolled in freshman composition. So you may well wonder why a Navy wife of thirty years who ruthlessly discarded family possessions before each and every move has held onto her copy.
I bought this textbook in 1971, as a freshman at Mount Saint Vincent, a Catholic college for women in New York City. My mother, my mother’s sister, and my father’s two sisters had all attended Mount Saint Vincent between 1928 and 1934. My three older sisters are also graduates of Mount Saint Vincent, having attended between the years 1953 and 1965. My father was introduced to my mother while visiting his sisters on campus one weekend. This historic introduction happened just outside the main entrance to Seton Hall, their dormitory. It was also just outside the main entrance to Seton Hall – oncd my dormitory- that one of my brothers dropped me off to college as if he were dropping me off to my piano lesson. He did not even get out of the car. However, as the youngest of seven, I knew the drill. I was on my own and my parents expected me to make the most of it.
Now you know what it is, and how I came to have it. But why have I kept it?
Inside the front cover is a literary map of England. In the top right corner, in pencil, is written Susan O’Dea and under that SETON # 39, which was the number of my dorm room. Susan O’Dea. Now I really wish I could tell you that I have kept this textbook for my memories of my first reading of a sonnet by Shakespeare, or The Tyger by William Blake, or perhaps the impact that the last entry, an essay by Elliot on Yeats, had on me. But no. The reason I have not been able to part with this book, and I have tried several times over the years, is that name written in the upper right hand corner of that first page.
Susan O’Dea. I remember that girl, all of 17, having set off for college after her junior year of high school. Quiet and lonely, but not intimidated; rather, I was confident to a fault, for the world was my oyster. I went about my studies in such a way that I made the Dean’s List and transferred to the University of London at the end of my freshman year. I had decided to major in English Literature, and decided the best place to study English writers would be in London, a map of which is on the last two pages of my Norton’s.
That decision set me on a course that would eventually lead me to meeting the man I would marry, and whose name would become mine. For a couple years after I had married, whenever I heard someone say “Mrs. Boland”, l would look around for my mother-in-law. With time, that ended, and along the road of life, I learned that a name does not define you; your sense of honor does that.
But our names come from those who came before us – our ancestors. When I see Susan O’Dea neatly printed on my Norton’s Anthology, I can see a young girl, among the shadows of other young girls who came before her, confident to a fault, emerging from Seton Hall, setting out on life’s journey. In fact, I can almost touch her.