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  • The Library of America at Thirty
  • Michael Gorra (bio)

The Christmas tree holds few surprises for those past childhood. You recognize the wrapped shapes of shirtboxes and wine bottles, and wonder only about the color; the little envelopes contain cards from the stores that you are already known to like. Books too—the shape and the weight are the most giving of giveaways, and however much their contents may thrill, the names on their covers are almost always known in advance. My wife will sometimes risk a title, but then she knows exactly what's on our shelves already and knows just which of my mental holes needs filling. My mother always asks, as she has for decades now. The package I found waiting for me in December 1982 was therefore a predictable one: a hardback, thicker than most and yet smaller. I was twenty-five, and had requested that book during one of my Sunday-morning phone calls. Our local bookstore, I was later told, had had a few problems with the order. The publisher was a new one, and getting it in had taken some time.

I shucked the paper off, and there it was, a jacket in glossy black, with a thin band of stripes running around it from front to back, red and white and blue: Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches, 1,500 pages—the second volume in the new Library of America. It wasn't a book I needed. I had plenty of Hawthorne on my graduate-student shelves already, but this one was advertised as offering something no single volume had done previously. It contained the [End Page 545] entire body of Hawthorne's short fiction, every sketch and story, his retellings of Greek myths for children included. It was an edition for obsessives, and though I wasn't the sort of young man who wanted every last alternate take of his favorite brands, I did want to own each scrap of the writers I admired, which isn't always or even often a good thing—and yet in that respect the Library of America and I might have been made for each other.

The series had begun that spring with four books and a lot of publicity, and the Library's prehistory still figures in its promotional materials. Edmund Wilson had first broached the dream in the early 1960s—that American literature might find its equivalent of the French Bibliothè que de la Pléiade, with similarly attractive and easily available editions of classic texts. Some government and foundation grants were meant to seed the project, but didn't; a second infusion of cash at the end of the seventies had finally brought it into reality, but too late for Wilson himself to see it. The first reviewers went through all that, and added some more details about the critic's own bitter quarrel with the Modern Language Association: Wilson felt the organization had tried to quash the project in favor of its own snaillike series of critical editions. And those reviewers did in fact all dutifully compare the first volumes to the Pléiade, with the skeptical Hugh Kenner noting in Harper's that it was the first time most "American book-page editors" had ever learned to spell it. Kenner thought the books too large to fit inside his pocket, as he claimed the French ones could, and regretted the absence of any substantial critical apparatus. They included only a chronology, a note on the text, and only a few pages of explanatory notes, many of them translations of foreign phrases. But there was no introduction—no account of a given work's sources or reception—and, with the exception of a few anthologies, that practice holds today. Still the Library does seem to have taken some account of Kenner's strictures. The notes and chronologies in later volumes are often fuller, and most of them are considerably thinner than my Hawthorne. The five snug books of Henry James's stories run to about 900 pages each.

Kenner's more substantive criticism entailed the series' choice of authors. The initial list was too familiar, and too much the product of New England...


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pp. 545-553
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