A Home for American Literature

Selected Library of America Volumes

Some forty years ago, I visited my friend Mike Prendergast and saw some intriguing books on his shelf. They were early volumes published by the Library of America. They were slipcased hardbound volumes averaging 800-1000 pages each with authoritative editions of American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Benjamin Franklin, and Herman Melville. The attempt was to do for the United States what the Pléiade editions did for France.

I wasted no time in contacting the L of A, and in no time at all I started receiving all the volumes they published. As the publisher branched out more, I had to cut back considerably. Today, I have more than 200 volumes containing the works of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Henry James, and scores of other authors.

For a while, I started to look down on American literature and concentrate my reading efforts on European authors. I now realize that was short-sighted, so I started to dig into some of the volumes on my shelves. Among the works I discovered were:

  • Dawn Powell (The Locusts Have No King and Turn, Magic Wheel)
  • Kenneth Fearing (The Big Clock)
  • William Lindsay Gresham (Nightmare Alley)
  • Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle)
  • Jack Kerouac (The Subterraneans)
  • Henry David Thoreau (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and The Maine Woods)
  • William Faulkner (Soldier’s Pay, Mosquitoes, and A Fable)
  • Mark Twain (Following the Equator)

One of my long-term projects is reading all the published works of Joan Didion in order, which was made easier by the L of A publishing her novels and essays in two volumes (The 1960s & 1970s and The 1980s & 1990s). I have no doubt that her later works will appear in a volume to be published.

I am also thinking of reading all of Henry James’s shorter works, including some of the novels I have not yet read, such as The Awkward Age and Wings of the Dove.

There are hundreds of treasures to be found in the Library of America. I can only hope to live long enough to do them justice.

The Flowering of New England

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Original House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts

We tend to think that the most recent works of biography, history, or literary criticism are the best, on the general principle that the present corrects the errors of the past. Yet I do not think that is true. I like to read scholarly books written before our time. More often than not, I find they are better.

I am currently reading Van Wyck Brooks’s New England: Indian Summer, itself the sequel of The Flowering of New England. The books were published in 1940 and 1936 respectively. They are incredibly rich on a paragraph to paragraph level. There are numerous footnotes, which themselves are frequently more interesting than the text. As I read Brooks, I take notes for books to read in the future.

These titles are part of a series of five books called the “Makers and Finders” series. They consist of:

  • The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865, pub 1936
  • New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915, pub 1940
  • The World of Washington Irving, pub 1944
  • The Times of Melville and Whitman, pub 1947
  • The Confident Years, 1885-1915, pub 1952

So far I have cracked only the first two titles, but I intend to read all five. Fortunately, they are readily available in used book stores, as they were exceedingly popular in the period they were written.

On the Cover of Time Magazine

It doesn’t much matter to me that Brooks’s writing is currently regarded as unfashionable. After all, I am wildly unfashionable. He did write a biography of Mark Twain that I didn’t like, but this “Makers and Finders” series is pure gold, compared to much of the dross being published today. These are books for people who like to read, and I am certainly one of them.