M. H. Abrams at Ithaca College
"A Survey of Literature: M.H. Abrams Visits Ithaca College," by Samuel B. Lupowitz
On the afternoon of April 13th, 2011, IC professor David Kramer introduced a special session of his Honors seminar, "Ithaca: The Art of Place." The course focused on works of art (mostly of the literary variety) created in the area, and throughout the semester, a number of guests had helped guide the class through a discovery of what Professor Kramer calls "the uniqueness of where we are, and the artistic importance of what has happened here." In this regard, the day's guest was special, and Professor Kramer made sure everyone was aware of it when he introduced Cornell University Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature Emeritus M.H. Abrams.
Declared by the New York Times to be an "arbiter of the canon" of English literature, Abrams has a lengthy history of academic accomplishment. His 1953 work The Mirror and the Lamp is 25th on the Modern Library list of 100 best nonfiction books of the past 100 years. He has taught such distinguished writers and scholars as Thomas Pynchon and Harold Bloom. Most importantly, for over 40 years (and since its inception), Abrams was the chief editor of the legendary Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Although he had spent decades on the "other hill," the day marked Professor Abrams's first visit to Ithaca College. Dr. Kramer's inquisitive students -- and members of the English faculty -- were delighted to spend the next hour and fifteen minutes listening to Professor Abrams discuss his early years studying literature, describe the development of the Norton Anthology, and answer an array of questions about his experiences in between. His anecdotes were both humorous and heartwarming, enlightening and emotional. He spoke fondly of the quirks of his late colleagues and friends A.R. Ammons and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as his co-editors and successors on the Norton team.
Throughout the session, Abrams remained seated. Occasionally, he asked for a question to be repeated more loudly. Yet his responses came in a thoughtful but deliberate tone that rarely betrayed his ninety-eight years. He expressed marvel at the success of the Norton, which he and his handpicked team of editors "expected to sell some thousands of copies . . . what happened was inconceivable. It took off and sold all over the world." Though he admitted regret for the size to which the volume has grown since his time at the helm, he emphasized his great pride in his work on this influential tome for teachers and students. Most strikingly, he spoke of his hope for the future of literature, and the wonder that it can bring. "Turn off the boob tube," he said intently, and smiled.
Abrams ended his stay by delighting the audience with impassioned readings of Dowson’s “Cynara,” and Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci," his own commentary. For a man with such a vast array of accomplishments, he was remarkably gracious and humble in response to the applause that he so richly deserved.