In Praise of the Library of America
I don’t know if it’s the grateful immigrant in me or just garden variety prejudice, but I could happily spend the rest of my days never again traveling outside the United States for pleasure. There’s too much to see here, too much to love even with polygamous freedom to revel in every state year after year.
I’d rather spend a month driving the sandhills and wheat fields of the Great Plains than a week in the mire of Old World memorabilia. I see more art in a Great Plains thunderstorm than in all the canvasses of the Louvre, more history and architecture in a glimpse of Arizona geology than in the Coliseum and the Acropolis put together. It may not always be human history, but these days a vacation from human history is a bonus.
Time and money don’t often permit the escape from job-world drudgery. But in the mid-1980s, I realized that discovering America didn’t necessarily mean trekking across geography. National monuments could be lined up on a shelf in the living room and delved into at will, any time of day or night.
It was about then that I came across the Library of America. Three “beautifully produced and admirably printed, thin-paper volumes, ranging from 800 to 1,500 pages,” were delivered to my door. I’m using the descriptive words of the critic Edmund Wilson, who conceived of the Library in the 1960s. He’d been incensed that most of the nation’s greatest books were either out of print, hard to find or simply forgotten. Looking across the ocean, he marveled at France’s Pleiade collection, which publishes the complete or collected works of the world’s greatest writers in compact, luxuriously bound but relatively inexpensive tomes. Why didn’t the United States similarly honor its writers, make them equally accessible to readers and keep them permanently in print?
Wilson never lived to see his goal realized. He died in 1972. But Jason Epstein, the longtime editor at Random House and an Einstein of publishing (he invented the quality paperback and gave birth to The New York Review of Books, among other things) picked up the project, lobbied the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation and, in 1982, published the first volume of the Library. It was a collection of three of Melville’s lesser-known travel works. Seven more volumes followed that year. A total of 150 have appeared to date, with five or six appearing every year, all as a nonprofit venture. (The Library’s Web site is www.loa.org.)
Fiction, history, poetry, journalism, nature and political writings: The collection is limitlessly eclectic. As I remember, those first three volumes dropped at my door were a collection of three Melville novels, only one of which (the whale one) I’d heard of. I immediately cracked it open and started reading “Redburn,” Melville’s first novel, about a young deckhand on his first trans-Atlantic voyage. I’d have never been interested in the book had it not been so handsomely presented: The typeface, the smell and feel of the books (based, according to Bruce Campbell, their designer, on “a proportion that the ancient Greeks found to be most perfect”).
So it’s been with dozens of works I’d probably never have picked up otherwise - Henry Adams’ “Democracy,” a forgotten political novel of Washington that still beats most of its imitators since, Francis Parkman’s breathless histories, William Dean Howells’ incredibly dull novels, Willa Cather’s paeans to the Plains, a collection of slave narratives that reads with disturbing immediacy. Or, to be more precise, such lines as this gem from “Redburn,” about America’s immigrant makeup that seems apt today, when so much enmity is directed at the United States: “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world.”
Immigrants work out their own way of becoming American. I read American literature. In that sense, the Library of America has been my most generous naturalization papers. But from John Winthrop to Saul Bellow, reading these books is also discovering that there is no difference between the immigrant experience and the American experience. It has all been discovery, adaptation, fitting in, exclusion, prejudice, and it continues to be—with exuberance for some, like Bellow’s Augie March, with painful resilience for others, like Richard Wright’s “Black Boy.” Funny. Here I am, an Arab by those falsely meaningful ethnic definitions, and the characters I’ve understood best and been most thankful for are Philip Roth’s Jewish neurotics. Him, I’ll be re-reading in the Library of America. He’s just signed on for an eight-volume anthology.
Is the Library running out of dead ones? I doubt it. It’s made it a specialty to disinter writers too carelessly forgotten or to make literary mosaics of whole eras, like the best reporting of the civil rights years or of the Vietnam War. In the Library of America, the nation’s motley voices speak anew, unbound.