About the Project

Covers, Titles, and Tables: Formations of American Literary Canons (CTT) was born of frustration and excitement and became, if not a labor of love, at least a collaborative adventure. During the 1980s and 1990s’ “canon wars,” I was frustrated by claims about the evolving American literary canon that were based on flimsy anecdotal evidence. During that same period, I occasionally taught a graduate course in Early American literature. I was impressed with the exciting new types of anthologies in the field. I collected as many as I could find, supplemented them with established general American literature anthologies, photocopied their tables of contents, and offered them as indices to canon evolution to my students. In 1999, the collaboration began. One of my graduate students at the University of Texas at Arlington, Matthew Levy, suggested that I could save a lot of trees and give wider access to the material if we created a digital archive of the tables of contents. Thus, before I had ever heard the term “digital humanities,” we began doing it.

The archive that evolved from our humble foray into digital humanities eventually grew into a collection of tables of contents in well over 100 anthologies, many of them with multiple volumes and most of them general surveys of American literature rather than anthologies that focused on period, theme, gender, or ethnic selections. During the early 2000s, with the help of generous volunteers (see Project Staff), I added a few prefaces that were in the public domain, tables of contents from more anthologies, selected histories published as early as 1829, the Duyckinck brothers’ two-volume Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855), and Stedman and Hutchinson’s eleven-volume A Library of American Literature (1887-1892). With permission from publishers, we also added selected book covers. The website was primitive by today’s standards, but it was received well. As of the spring 2024, the number of recorded visits exceeded 100,000, despite the fact that there was no counter for eight years and IT experts took the site down for a year because it was “vulnerable.” I’m pleased that CTT has received favorable academic attention. It was the first website discussed in Martha Brogan’s Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature (2005).

The redesigned and improved website, launched during the spring of 2024, will enhance the ability of students, teachers, and scholars to understand evolving literary canon formations over almost three centuries. We are gradually moving towards the ability to do full searches of all the words in the anthology tables of contents. I have written a new Introduction that offers historical contexts for the canon wars of the late 20th century, describes the site in some detail, and offers several examples of how CTT can be used to understand the literary, critical, historical, and production forces that shape literary canons. Since the early stages of development, we have added many tables of contents of old and new anthologies, and, with permission, the bibliography from Joseph Csicsila’s Canons by Consensus: Critical Trends and American Literature Anthologies (2004), the “subject” indices from the annual American Literary Scholarship; and selected “Extra” articles on canon formation published in American Literature while the canon wars raged in the 1980s. These essays, written by several of the leading American literature scholars of the mid-and late 20th century, offer provocative insights from quite different viewpoints on canon formation and American culture.

I know we have much more work to do. A long-term goal is a more extensive collection. The present archive needs updating for both recent and past anthologies and updating for the American Literary Scholarship indices. But it is our hope that CTT in its present form will continue to be valuable to university students and their professors and also for high school programs, as well as for librarians and book selection committees desiring to place their purchasing decisions in relevant American literature publishing contexts. Considering the recent controversies about the appropriateness of books held in school and public libraries, CTT will also help cultural and political leaders to place comments about books within the context of one of the most important means of transferring concepts of American culture from generation to generation – the literary anthology.

Kenneth M. Roemer

Project Director