Religions—new ones as well as old—are made, not born, and their accents are unmistakable. These days you can hear them in the reverent introductions to scholarly editions of collected letters and in the equally reverent reviews of one imposing volume after another. Consider Thomas Hardy’s letters, now “complete” in their seven promised volumes: ardent in its high praise, the verdict on the edition was pronounced— like a benediction—well before the final volume appeared. As one reviewer put it: “Volume VI lives up to the superb quality of its predecessors, and for the same reasons: meticulousness, elegance of annotative phrasing and typography, and easily carried authoritativeness. Hardy may not always have been one of the most provocative of correspondents, but he has inspired one of the most accomplished of editions.”

Far from isolated, Hardy’s case—with its...


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