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 Absence of Life”

The Beast in the Jungle?

The Beast in the Jungle?

In his An Introduction to American Literature, Jorge-Luis Borges wrote of Henry James, “Despite the scruples and delicate complexities of James his work suffers from a major defect: the absence of life.” Borges got Henry James wrong, just as he got William Faulkner wrong. I can understand, because I thought the same about James—up until the time I actually started reading him.

Granted he can appear to be insufferably bland and insufferably gentlemanly. At the same time, he knew what he was about; and he had a moral sense that was more finely wrought than almost all other writers. In his story “Maud-Evelyn,” he writes about a middle-aged couple called the Dedricks:

“Whom do they know?”

“No one but me. There are people in London like that.”

“Why know no one but you?”

“No—I mean no one at all.  There are extraordinary people in London, and awfully nice. You haven’t an idea. You people don’t know every one. They lead their lives—they go their way. One finds—what do you call it?—refinement, books, cleverness, don’t you know, and music, and pictures, and religion, and an excellent table—all sorts of pleasant things. You only come across them by chance; but it’s all perpetually going on.”

Sounds rather boring, doesn’t it?—until, that is, you find out what the Dedricks are up to with their dear-departed daughter. With James, it’s all too easy to get stuck on this surface frou-frou.

Henry James

Henry James

If you read James’s best story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” you will have the pleasure of seeing James write about himself under the name of John Marcher. Our Mr. Marcher feels that he is being reserved for an unknown and dire fate. His woman friend May Bartram puts it this way: “You said you had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.”

We spend about forty pages then trying to find out the nature of this curse. In the meantime, John Marcher does not fall in love, though he has a sort of Darby-and-Joan relationship with May Bartram. One pictures him sitting by, his shoulders hunched against the threat of what he calls “the beast in the jungle” that is waiting around some dark corner to pounce on him. In the meantime, May sickens and dies, but not before suspecting the nature of Marcher’s curse.

Eventually Marcher, too, finds out, as he watches a grieving mourner at the cemetery near May’s grave. And the nature of the beast?

The fate he had been marked for he had met with a vengeance—he had emptied the cup to the lees; he had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened. That was the rare stroke—that was his visitation…. The Beast had lurked indeed, and the Beast, at its hour, had sprung.

Think of Henry James as a John Marcher: He never gets married or falls in love. He exchanges social amenities with all the best people. But he uniquely knows that his very bloodlessness chills many readers to the bone.

The truth is an elusive quantity. Sometimes it comes best expressed by a writer whom one chronically underestimates because of his style of life.