When the Library of America was founded, with much fanfare, in 1979, its avowed purpose was to bring us “the collected works of America’s foremost authors in uniform hardcover editions,” and this is what it began doing in 1982 when the first four volumes were published. As the word collected indicated, this was not to be yet another commercial assault on the classroom-text market that concentrates on a relatively short list of classics already abundantly available in competing editions. Something at once grander, more serious, more permanent, and more disinterested was promised—an American equivalent, it was said, of the classic Pléiade editions of French literature. For the first time ever, American literature was to be rescued from the hit-or-miss vagaries of cultural fashion and commercial exploitation, and we were at last to have a permanent and comprehensive library of the writers who have shaped the course of our literary history.

The public-interest aspect of the Library of America project is emphatically spelled out in the paragraph that adorns the dust jacket of every volume so far published:

All of Melville, all of Hawthorne, all of James, and Emerson and Thoreau—these and the writings of other notable American novelists, historians, poets, philosophers, and essayists are, for the first time in our history, being published in a series of handsome and durable volumes. Each compact, elegant book includes several unabridged works, and some volumes run to as many as 1500 pages. Publication of the series is supported by grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thanks to their generosity, America, like other nations, can offer every reader the collected works of its major authors in authoritative editions. The commitment to publish an authoritative version of an author’s work assures the reader that only after thorough research and study is a text selected for the series. For each volume, a distinguished scholar has prepared a succinct chronology of the author’s life and career, an essay on the choice of texts, and some necessary notes.

Was it expecting too much to think that this noble enterprise, one of the best things of its kind ever to enjoy a government subsidy, would remain insulated from the rampant vulgarity and cynicism that now presides over the commercial book-publishing industry in this country? Apparently it was. And so we can now look forward to a new, cut-rate, eviscerated, and thoroughly commercialized version of the Library of America—or something still claiming the name, anyway—in the paperback series that Vintage Books, a division of Random House, will commence marketing this fall.

Although the Vintage version still calls itself the Library of America, its books will bear little, if any, resemblance to the scholarly hardcover volumes this series was created—and subsidized—to give us. Gone is the very concept of an author’s collected writings. What we are offered as a substitute for “all of Melville,” for example, is yet another paperback edition of Moby Dick. And as bait to attract the unwary to this unworthy enterprise, Vintage has rounded up a gaggle of best-selling writers, mostly from the Random House/Knopf lists, to provide trendy introductions to its counterfeit version of the Library of America.

Thus we are to have Toni Morrison introducing Moby Dick, Peter Matthiessen introducing Thoreau’s Cape Cod, E. L. Doctorow introducing Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Robert Hughes on Francis Parkman, Garry Wills on Thomas Jefferson, etc. As the crowning touch in this shameless transformation of the nonprofit Library of America into still another Random House marketing operation, we are to have that eminent literary critic, Brooke Astor, introducing Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. One can easily imagine what Edith Wharton, with her high literary standards and her low opinion of upper-class New York society, would have had to say about that!

This whole operation is a complete betrayal of the Library of America idea, and not the least cynical aspect of its shoddy misrepresentations is the use it is making of the late Edmund Wilson’s endorsement of the original series. When Wilson said that “it is absurd that our most read and studied writers should not be available in their entirety in any convenient form,” he was not talking about this travesty, and it is the height of dishonesty to pretend that he was.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 1, on page 2
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