by Myra Jehlen

Richard PoirierYou can tell an idea is good by the way it seems obvious the moment it is proposed. The idea of The Library of America is in that category. Of course it is a good idea to publish a series of books representing, in the library’s phrase, “the best and most significant” American writing. It is then evident that this series needs to be produced with great rigor, so that its volumes serve as standard, authoritative editions; that these editions should be broadly available, and therefore not too expensive; that they should be attractive, convenient to use and carry about, and also recognizable, which more or less requires they be uniform; and that they be kept in print permanently.

The Library of America began publishing in May 1982 with four volumes by Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whiman. Though the idea of The Library of America had been thought of already in the 1940s, its real start was in the mid 1950s when Edmund Wilson, inspired by the French series, La Pléiade, suggested an American version to Jason Epstein, the editorial director at Random House who would become one of the founding members of the library.

Another recognizable figure in the history of The Library of America is Richard Poirier, who joined the project during the planning stages in 1977 and stepped down as chairman of its board of directors in 2006. Significantly, for much of the time he was building The Library of America, Professor Poirier was also building Rutgers English, transforming it into a nationally recognized department with an excellent research faculty, a comprehensive curriculum in literary history, and a competitive student body. In 1985, Professor Poirier defined the relation of The Library of America thus: the success of the project shows “that so many people—not a whole country, but still a great many people—are giving a signal that they still think there’s something going on in books that are hard to read and to make.”

It is in response to this signal that, in addition to over 180 volumes collecting the works of such canonical writers as Emerson, Faulkner, Baldwin, Alcott, Adams, and Longfellow and 25 volumes of poetry in the American Poets project, some ten anthologies have appeared thus far, including one on food writing, another on Americans in Paris, a third on New York writing, and a fourth on environmental writing. The quality of the writing and its importance is as high in these volumes as in the others, while the subjects nicely mix up the categories in which readers, especially American readers, are wont to be divided and confined.

Mixing up the categories in another way, The Library of America has begun publishing works by living authors, beginning with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. The criteria are the same but the situation makes all the difference. For when it publishes living authors, the library comes onto the current literary stage, linking past writing to present. This linkage illuminates something that may be obscure in reading only past writings, namely the mutual engagement of writing with the life of the time.

The Library of America is obviously a good idea in regard not only to the national literary tradition but, broadly, to the national culture and its relation to artistic and intellectual pursuits.