The LIBRARY OF AMERICA is one of the brightest lights in the dimming world American publishing and I have followed it since its beginning. i have been both appalled and pleased with it all these years. At first I was almost prepared to define the Library of America as being the gold standard of publishing but in fact that must be the PLEIADE editions published by Gallimard in Paris.
Not in my lifetime will there ever be an English language equivalent of the Pleiade whose books are models of publishing beauty and integrity. In Paris, when an author is selected for the Pleiade all of that author's works are published complete with well written notes. This is not the habit of the Library of America and it has resulted in two truly botched books which should be withdrawn. I am speaking of the Gertrude Stein and the Richard Wright volumes. They are embarrassment and do an active dis-service to the reputations of the authors.
But over the years I have constantly read in the Library of America's Poe, Faulkner, Melville (though Melville's poetry is not included)Henry James, Henry Adams... OK the list can go but simply put my room would be bare indeed with the Library of America. It is a putting aside of those paperbacks and becoming an adult.
I already know that in February/March there will be volumes devoted to John Cheever, Lafcadio Hearn and A. J. Liebling...
But in the now I have been reading in the new volumes devoted to Katherine Ann Porter, William Maxwell, John Ashbery and Philip Roth. It must be understood that one usually does not sit down and read these sorts of books cover to cover no matter what reviewers pretend... one of the details that emerged from the discussion of the suicide of David Foster Wallace was that he was well aware that many of the reviewers of his big novel INFINITE JEST had not read the whole book... and all astute readers well understand the fakery in much of the writing about books in the United States. Readers should find Jack Green's great defining book FIRE THE BASTARDS (Dalkey Archive) on just how truly awful book reviewing in in the United States.
How does one read the Library of America books?... I was reminded of Ed Burns talking about his summers with Michel Leiris in France. Before setting out for their summer holidays there would be the going to the bookstore to decide on what would be read that summer... inevitably a Pleiade edition would be selected both because of the ease of carrying those beautiful books and the authority of the editions... Ed was remembering the summer of Goncharov... unlike the Library of America the Pleiade thinks of itself as creating a library of world literature...
I have been reading in the Ashbery...a poet that becomes readable with the distance of this edition. One has to carry a poet when one goes traveling and Ashbery helps with seeing what is OUT THERE.
Now should he be up there with Ezra Pound? or T.S. Eliot? or William Carlos Williams?
The Katherine Ann Porter volume collects her stories and journalism... and while the stories are essential the missing SHIP OF FOOLS is a serious problem and something that would not have happened it this had been the Pleiade. I read the bound galleys of the Porter stories while in Arizona and in the California desert. By making them available again our literature seems a little more populated just as happened with the two volumes devoted to John Dos Passos...
The second William Maxwell volume is more a homage to his role as an editor at The NEW YORKER and his still living presence in New York literary circles though I am pretty sure that the actual man, who I met at Glenway Wescott's memorial service, would be a little embarrassed by these volumes because with no volume devoted to Sherwood Anderson there is no context for his own work. Maxwell would probably also suggest that Glenway Wescott should also have appeared before his own books were published. Of course the Maxwell volumes are treasured for the quality of the writing, for their sheer readability but there is something a little wrong in how naked they sit in the Library of America and I can well imagine that Maxwell, if still alive would rather be talking about Anderson and Wescott's work than his own.
At the moment I am in the midst of a discussion about education at John Jay College here in New York City. Of course the relevant document is in the volume devoted to Thomas Jefferson... about the power of the sweeping broom and the necessity of sweeping out the faded leaves... to allow what remains to flourish...
The Cheever volumes at least seem to collect all his fiction though we will have to see when they appear...
I am looking forward to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, more Kerouac, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, the poetry of Melville, the remaining Henry James, Howells...James Baldwin... Edward Dahlberg and of course as I mentioned above: Glenway Wescott and Sherwood Anderson...
How many publishers invite expectation anymore in the United States?