Centenary Magazine Spring '06
As this year’s Founders’ Day celebration focuses on the 40th anniversary of A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, some people are asking, “So, why all the hubbub over an English textbook?”
Over its 40 years in print, the Centenary-born textbook A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature has developed an international reputation and has long been considered a classic text in the world of literary criticism.
It’s a book that has made its way into the hands of readers across the globe with translations in over a half-dozen languages, including Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese.
It’s the first book of its kind, and the only one to outlive all the copycats.
It has been hailed as “The Bible of English Studies” by independent reviewers.
It has been adopted for the classroom by English professors at countless colleges and universities throughout the country, ranging from such large institutions as the University of California-Berkeley and Ohio State University to prestigious liberal arts colleges like Colby and Dickenson.
The Handbook was the brainchild of four colleagues in Centenary’s English Department during the 1960s. Drs. Wilfred Guerin, Earle Labor, Lee Morgan and the late John Willingham set out to write a comprehensive textbook that, for the first time, would not only explain the basic methods of literary criticism but also illustrate these methods by practical example.
The authors remember the project’s genesis, which came largely from classroom experiences with first-year Centenary students. Many students had been taught in high school that literary works ought to be interpreted to have one meaning.
“The idea that a work of literature could open itself up to numerous possibilities was exciting to our students and to us,” says Dr. Labor. “We thought, ‘Look, there ought to be a textbook on this stuff!’”
"The Handbook epitomizes that very special quality found at Centenary that one can't find elsewhere." —Dr. Earle Labor H'90, co-author
Quite simply, the Handbook examines several works of literature from different critical-interpretive perspectives. The authors chose four selections to analyze: Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown”; Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”; and William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
Up until the Handbook’s introduction, critical theories were developed by individual scholars at various institutions and trickled down from the scholars to their students. A comprehensive textbook had never been published for practical use in the classroom.
Recognizing the need of professors and students, these four Centenary professors set out to create a textbook, its intended use being for high school seniors and young college students beginning a serious study of literature. Through extraordinary collaborative effort, the first edition was born.
“At that point, the idea that it would become an international classic never entered our minds,” Dr. Labor admits, “We knew we were doing a good thing. We knew we were plowing new ground. But, not one of us envisioned the kind of success this book has had.”
Times change… and so changes the Handbook
Since the first edition hit the shelves in March 1966, the textbook’s spine has grown noticeably thicker with each edition as more content has beefed up the page count. It has swelled from an original 231 pages to the fifth edition’s whopping 424 in order to absorb groundbreaking contemporary methods of literary criticism.
Centenary alumnus Dr. Jeanne Campbell Reesman ’77, the Handbook’s fifth author, is the main contributor of such new methods as feminism, cultural studies and popular culture.
“I joined the HCAL team nearly 15 years ago for the third edition in 1992,” Dr. Reesman says. “Being part of this deservedly classic textbook has been one of the most meaningful aspects of my career as a scholar and teacher. Not only did I get to contribute to the book… but I got to work with beloved teachers from my days at Centenary.”
Dr. Reesman teaches English at the University of Texas in San Antonio and joined the Handbook team at the request of the original four authors, who had recently been criticized by a colleague who charged them with “white, male bias.”
“We thought, ‘Well, we need a woman here,’” reflects Dr. Labor. “And of course Jeanne Reesman is one of our own brightest graduates, and she’s made quite a name for herself in the field of American literature aside from working with us on this text.”
In addition to bringing Dr. Reesman on board, the authors added Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to supplement the original four works of literature.
"I am proud whenever I see the book in a pair of student's hands. There are just not many books–if any–that can continue over 40 years and remain current with the times, a perennial best-seller." —Dr. Jeanne Campbell Reesman '77, co-author
Through the analysis of these literary works, the book introduces readers to distinct approaches of literary criticism. Readers learn a number of interpretive techniques, ranging from historical/ biographical and moral/philosophical approaches to formalist, psychological, mythic and archetypal perspectives. Contemporary techniques are also covered in depth, including feminist criticism, poststructuralism, reader-response criticism and gender and cultural studies.
Although the authors first expected the book to be used in lower-division undergraduate and accelerated senior high school classrooms, it soon encompassed upper-division undergraduate curricula and even graduate-level studies.
“I don’t think we recognized its potential,” Dr. Morgan concedes. “But, I must say, in retrospect, I’m just as proud as punch over it.”
It seems no one realized how significant and successful the Handbook would turn out to be. Certainly, no one expected that a friend of Dr. Labor’s, while vacationing in Hong Kong only a short time ago, would step on a double-decker bus and see a Chinese man reading a copy of the Handbook.
Despite everyone’s underestimations 40 years ago, there’s no doubt that the Handbook will continue to stand as a luminous testament to the power of collaborative effort at Centenary.
"The fact that this book has come from a small liberal arts college in the South, not from the Ivy League or the West Coast or the Big 10, makes it unique." —Dr. Lee Morgan H'96, co-author
“We were a little community of scholars, bringing different views from different graduate schools, and even to some extent different cultural and philosophical points of view,” Dr. Guerin reflects. “But we all loved literature, we loved teaching it and we loved interacting with each other and with our students. From that environment came 40 years of the Handbook and some 50 years of friendships.”