Remembering M H Abrams

M H Abrams on  his 100th birthday celebration in July 2012. (Cornell University photograph)

M H Abrams on his 100th birthday celebration in July 2012.
(Cornell University photograph)

M H Abrams died on April 21 at Ithaca, New York. He was 102.

I met Professor Abrams in the autumn of 1994 when I was at Cornell on a fellowship.  I was writing my PhD dissertation on Thomas Pynchon, a Cornell alumnus, and Professor Molly Hite, my academic adviser, suggested I speak to Mike since he had taught Pynchon. I had a thing about not being an academic tourist, which is why there are very few pictures of me at Cornell. During my year there, I didn’t even go to see Benedict Anderson whose Imagined Communities was de rigueur reading. Anyway, I made an appointment by telephone and went to interview Class of 1916 Professor Emeritus Meyer Howard Abrams at his office in Goldwin Smith Hall. But Professor Abrams wasn’t there. I returned to 110 Highland Place (my Collegetown, Ithaca apartment), feeling quite despondent, and made another call.  Without quite saying that he had forgotten, Professor Abrams gave me a new appointment.

I was impressed by the respect that Professor Abrams, the leading scholar of Romanticism in his generation, enjoyed at a time when the reigning deities in American English departments were the French theorists. In Cornell there was Jonathan Culler, famous for his mediation of French structuralist and poststructuralist theory. Culler had compared Professor Abrams’s two books The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism to the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Though the name M H Abrams was familiar to me, as to hundreds of English Literature students in India, I had no idea what he looked like until I saw him. (Priya Gopalan, who was a graduate student at Cornell at the time, told me she had never seen Professor Abrams.) I knew Professor Abrams was eighty-two years old but any preconceptions I may have formed about his health and abilities were very soon dispelled.  I found I was interviewing a man intellectually alive and sharp and in fine physical health.

Poster of In Custody. ( Wikipedia)

Poster of In Custody. (Wikipedia)

I had bought a cassette recorder from Radio Shack for the interview. One of the movies I saw at Cornell (which, incidentally, is known for its excellent campus film exhibition programmes) was the Ismail Merchant directed  In Custody in which college lecturer Deven (played by Om Puri Kapoor) interviews the great Urdu poet Nur Sahjahanabadi (played by Shashi Kapoor) and makes a complete mess of the recording.  My own recording was only a little better and I had to spend several evenings transcribing it.  I was hoping to have the interview published in The Indian Journal of American Studies (IJAS) which used to be brought out by the American Studies Research Centre (ASRC) in Hyderabad. However, IJAS changed its editorial policy: it stopped publishing interviews (perhaps too many Indian Fulbrighters had taken the easy way out by interviewing American academics.) So the interview appeared in a college journal. Few, if any, read it. I no longer have copies of the journal or the transcript I made. But I remember asking Professor Abrams what he thought of deconstruction and theory.  ‘All reference is wiped out by these new theories of language,’ he replied, ‘and this gives us an interesting perspective, I don’t deny.’ But deconstruction is only one approach among many, he implied. I also remember asking what he thought of the expansion of the canon. Professor Abrams replied that he would have to give me a qualified reply. New texts could be included provided they measured up.

At the end of the interview, Professor Abrams was in an expansive mood. He reminisced about his visit to India. Old Delhi was too crowded for him and he did not get off the bus. But he said he admired how India had stuck to democracy despite all its troubles.  He spoke with respect of I A Richards who was his tutor at the University of Cambridge but said that his principles (set out in Practical Criticism) struck him as rather ‘defective’. I finally asked him about Thomas Pynchon. He remembered Pynchon submitted an essay comparing Johnson and Voltaire as satirists which was so good that he immediately assumed (‘in that way we academics have’) that it was plagiarized. So he asked Pynchon to see him. Tom Pynchon turned up, a tall thin young man with a moustache. As soon as he started talking it became obvious that the essay was indeed his own. ‘There were no Xerox machines in those days,’ said Professor Abrams, ‘or I would have kept a copy. But I remember the last line. It was: “Voltaire writes satire but Johnson writes wisdom.”’ Professor Abrams talked about his other celebrated student, Harold Bloom. ‘Bloom calls me his intellectual father but I don’t see much of myself in him.’ He also mentioned Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak. (Her PhD on Yeats was supervised by his Cornell colleague, Paul de Man.) ‘One day the most beautiful girl I had ever seen turned up in my room,’ he said. She could play the sitar. (He described her work as part-Marxism, part-postcolonialism.) ‘Have you seen her?’  I said I hadn’t. ‘She has lost her beauty but you still can see traces.’


I told Professor Abrams that his books were known in India. I was of course thinking of his A Glossary of Literary Terms and The Norton Anthology of English Literature and its spin offs like The Norton Anthology of American Literature. He said he received requests for his books from provincial colleges in India and that he tried to send them if he could. (‘Books are expensive.’)

I didn’t quite know it then but the Norton, first published in 1962 with Professor Abrams as its general editor, has shaped the agendas of English Literature departments worldwide far more decisively than Derrida and company have. As the dominant anthology of English literature, the Norton has, in Leah Price’s words, ‘earned the authority of an Académie Française combined with that of an Index librorum prohibitorum.’

Sean Shesgreen who has done a study of the Norton ascribes its hegemonic success to three factors: the use of bible paper (which made the Norton lighter and handier than the existing anthologies while allowing it to include hundreds of authors), the aggressive publishing policies of W. W. Norton & Company (a commercial factor), and Professor Abram’s brilliance (a literary or editorial factor). When Shesgreen met Abrams at Cornell in 2004, the latter mentioned that when he took over A Glossary of Literary Terms (1941) in 1957 from Dan Norton and Peters Rushton, sales soared from 2200 to 67000 copies, showing Abrams’s ‘brilliant mix of academic and business acumen.’  From the Norton, Abrams’s earnings were double – as General Editor and as period (Romantic) editor.  Shesgreen believes his earnings ran into millions, giving substance to the story that Professor Abrams was ‘the richest humanist in America’.

According to Shesgreen, one of Abrams’s major contributions was making the Norton faculty-friendly. Texts were carefully edited from original sources. (The existing anthologies in the 1960s were two Harcourt Brace anthologies, The College Survey of English Literature and Major British Writers. Shesgreen’s comments suggest they were edited in a rather slapdash manner.) The authoritative and updated reading lists, footnotes, and marginal glosses allowed professors to focus on the exciting task of interpreting texts without the burden of ‘compulsory bibliographic drudgery.’ Students were not forgotten or overlooked; indeed, they were ‘respected as aspiring scholars’ and given ‘sophisticated historical introductions, biographical narratives…innovative special topics, all produced with painstaking care’. The editors Abrams chose were elite academics. But Abrams picked only men.

In 1973, the Norton’s preeminent position was challenged by the publication of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Though its editors were academics of the stature of Lionel Trilling, Bloom and Frank Kermode, this anthology did not succeed in making much of a dent. A more serious challenger was the The Longman Anthology of English Literature. By the sixth edition of the Norton, the average age of a period editor was 67. In the late 1980s it became all too obvious that the Norton had disregarded women’s writing. A fundamental reconceptualization of English literature had occurred between 1962 and 2000.  Abrams’s Norton did not ‘account for how colonialism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism had shaped literature written in English.’

David Damrosch, the Longman general editor, made two serious allegations. He accused the Norton of not taking women writers seriously and of having little conception of the multicultural nature of literature in English. The seventh edition of the Norton was a major revision. When the Norton and the Longman anthologies came out in 1998, four-fifths of the contents were identical. The former included Salman Rushdie for the first time.


Abrams will be remembered for his twin towers, The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism. 9/11 has dated that comparison, but the two books are undoubtedly monumental works of Romantic scholarship.  In India his name will be kept alive by his Glossary and, of course, battered  library copies of the Norton ‘on whose readers,’ Leah Price has said, ‘the sun never sets’.