The Library of America, the black-jacketed best answer that American letters gives to the famous Pléiade editions of canonical French masterpieces, published its first volumes in 1982: a volume of Herman Melville containing his three adventure novels Omoo, Typee, and Mardi, the Tales and Sketches of Nathanial Hawthorne, a collection of the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman edited by his best biographer, Justin Kaplan, three novels by Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, the various Mississippi writings of Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Pudd’nhead Wilson, and of course Life on the Mississippi), and two volumes of the novels, short stories, and nonfiction pieces of Jack London. A very hefty start, and the line has only grown since them, now expanding to over 300 books covering an enormous swath of American literary history.
The volumes themselves are the pride and joy of their owners. The books are almost all uniformly designed: dust jackets with patriotic red-white-and-blue piping and a little inset portrait of the author. The volumes fit perfectly in the hand; their sewn binding lets them sit open at almost page; their bright acid-free pages will never yellow or stiffen; and when you shelve enough of them together, you get a vast imposing wall of black.
From the beginning, the Library of America presented some distinct editorial choices to its potential readers, some love-it-or-leave-it choices of style and approach. As you can see even from that first batch of titles, these weren’t stand-alone choices like the kinds offered by so many reprint outfits. Readers who might want to encounter Tom Sawyer or Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or, for some mysterious reason, Omoo) alone on a landscape, without the crowding presence of brethren works, well, those readers were out of luck here.
Likewise the studious avoidance of individuality when it comes to covers. True, over the years the line has occasionally varied its classic flag-on-black design. The collection of stage writing edited by Laurence Senelick, for instance, has an appropriately gaudy red curtain on its cover, and the two excellent box sets of vintage science fiction novels come festooned in spaceships and alien landscapes. The single best Library of America anthology volume of them all, Peter Neill’s American Sea Writing from 21 years ago, has a faded jacket suggesting a manuscript long roughened by sun and spray.
And the siren-call that reprint volumes have always made to professors, scholars, and other professional windbags – all those opening pages where they can pontificate to a waiting audience – has been steadfastly ignored over the years. As delightful as it might be to read the great R.W.B. Lewis holding forth for 50 preliminary pages about Edith Wharton or Bernard Bailyn going on at great length about the debates that roiled around the adoption of the US Constitution, the ruling ethos in those and all other cases is brevity: minimal remarks from even the most respected experts, minimal critical notes tucked into the back of the book – minimal intrusion between the reader and these magnificent, challenging texts.
The idea being that it’s readers, not scholars, who make a canon – and readers who sustain it. You won’t find that kind of quiet confidence in any other reprint line (now that the great era of Dover editions has ended, that is – they usually skipped any kind of editorial intervention at all and just left you alone with three whole volumes of Lewis & Clark, or what have you), and if you don’t agree with it, if you like to feel your in-house experts close at hand with any needed explanations, then the Library of America might not be for you.
And of course you won’t find everything in the line. The project is ongoing, after all, and it’s dedicated to bringing readers the whole gamut of American literature, from the writers who are synonymous with the country (Whitman, Melville, Twain, Emerson, Thoreau – even George Washington, God preserve us all) to writers most contemporary readers have never heard of (one recent volume featured the dated but oddly moving prose of Constance Fenimore Woolson, for instance, and a bit later this year readers will encounter – probably for the first time – a generous helping of Elizabeth Spencer). Avid followers of the series are therefore guaranteed three things: solidly-made books that will last a lifetime, careful but unobtrusive editorial curating, and a very pleasing variety. True, you’ll get a dismaying amount of Henry James, but hey, look on the bright side: you’ll also get a dismaying amount of John Updike.
In all, the Library of America is one of the most impressive publishing achievements in US history. Any library director lucky enough to have a large collection will tend to give it pride of place even among all the library’s other worthy volumes. You’ll find a generous selection of those black-jacketed titles here at the library, in their own stately wooden case. But of course don’t let the case or that wall of black daunt you; these works, maybe more than any others, are living things just waiting for your discovery. You might re-encounter an old friend, or make a new discovery. Hell, you might even finally read Omoo. Stranger things have happened.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the National, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the Daily Star in Bangladesh, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.