Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More, please—faster, please

A few days ago, Mark Athitakis replied to a piece on the Newsweek website, which complained that “the Library of America is running out of writers.”

The problem started, you see, when “writers who were anything but canonical began to be included—[H. P.] Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Dawn Powell.” The embarrassing phrase anything but canonical is left undefined.

Athitakis rightly laughs at the complaints, which do little more, he observes, than to consecrate a “constricted view of what makes for a canon.” But then the Library of America seems to share some such view, he says. The 2010 titles include John Marshall’s Writings, Mark Twain’s Tramp Abroad and other travel writings, two volumes of selections from Emerson’s Journals, lyrics from the American song book by Stephen Foster and others, and an anthology of Shirley Jackson’s horror fiction.

A little more impatience to include more writers would be welcome, Athitakis concludes. But that raises a question. What books should be added to the Library of America?

What about The Federalist Papers? Although some of them are scattered through volumes of Madison and Hamilton, they have yet to receive single-volume treatment, which seems a little odd. And though Jefferson has been given a volume, John Adams has not. Even more glaringly, a selection from John Quincy Adams’s Diaries does not even seem to be contemplated.

Except for Henry Adams and Francis Parkman, history is under­repre­sented. How about Bernard DeVoto’s great trilogy The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952)?

Whitaker Chambers’s Witness is an obvious candidate, but probably will never overcome the political objections to its inclusion. Chambers’s criticism—always provocative, always interesting—could bulk out the book.

For that matter, why not an anthology of American literary criticism from Poe to James Wood with special attention to the debates over realism, the New Humanism, and the New Criticism?

Novelists with large untapped bodies of work, and who are likely candi­dates, are fewer and farther between, although I would make a case for Peter De Vries, Stanley Elkin, and (less passionately) for Wright Morris. But a two-volume set of New York Jewish novels, including The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), Call It Sleep, and Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), would be a terrific addition.

Update: Two-and-a-half years ago Patrick Kurp preceded me in calling for nominations to the Library of America. Interestingly, he himself nominated Liebling, Cheever, and Maxwell—all of whom have since been honored with enshrinement. He also urged the inclusion of Gaddis (my heart nearly stopped from shock) and Guy Davenport, one of his favorite writers.

Strat-O-Matic invites their customers to vote on the next historical season to be released in a deluxe version by the company. If the Library of America did the same, Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard would win in a walk!


Amateur Reader said...

Yes! Yes to more history. There are also a large number of classics of Western exploration and travel writing that would fit their mission - George Catlin, for example.

And yes to the Jewish novels. Another idea: a thick anthology of American Yiddish writing. Plays, stories, articles, whatever. I have no doubt that 800-900 pages of high quality would be easy to find.

Emily Dickinson is missing, I assume because of copyright issues.

What else. The Damnation of Frederic Ware? But then the LoA book would have to be padded with 400 more pages of Frederic miscellanea, like the Nathaniel West volume. What do I know, maybe there's plenty more good stuff.

R. T. said...

As I recall, LOA's original "game plan" was to select representative American writing that ought never be out of print. The word "canon" was not, if I recall correctly, part of the publisher's objective. The LOA remains a valuable resource for those who care about American literature (in all of its genres).

Kevin said...

The Federalist Papers are collected, intact, with some other relevant contemporary writings in the first of the volumes entitled "Debate on the Constitution."

Melville's poetry, including Clarel, seems like it ought to have been included by now.

I'd also suggest a substantial volume of Robinson Jeffers, emphasizing the long narrative poems.

Kevin said...

I'm sorry--I see you're right. The Debate on the Constitution volume only seems to contain Hamilton's Federalist essays after all.

Mark Athitakis said...

Thanks for the link. I didn't realize that "Call it Sleep" hadn't gotten the LoA treatment. (Haven't read the rest of his books, so I don't know if a Henry Roth volume would be worthy in itself.)

Nelson Algren is a glaring omission on the LoA's part, I'd argue. Lots of Algren reissues have made the rounds in recent years, so I have a hard time imagining that the minders of his estate would have a problem with such a collection.

tickletext said...

Why not a volume of J.F. Powers?

M.F.K. Fisher?

Robert Benchley and/or the rest of the Vicious Circle, or some volume of the New Yorker humorists?

D. G. Myers said...

J. F. Powers is a superb recommendation. Reminds me that Walker Percy also deserves LOA inclusion.

dglen said...

Amen to Percy being in the LOA.

Richard said...

I was going to remind you that James Wood is not American, but then I wondered, he writes primarily for American publications, is that sufficient reason for inclusion? (Did Nabokov ever take American citizenship? If not, what makes his work "American"? Just the fact of his residence? But the books he wrote after leaving the US are included, are they not?)

I completely agree on Stanley Elkin, though I have all of the Dalkey editions, which are solid paperbacks.

I wasn't aware there was no Emily Dickinson. That's odd.

S.K. Azoulay said...

I'm a big fan of LOA, I think the volumes dedicated to Nathanael West, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver are particularly successful. However, I never understood why only 6 of Saul Bellow's novels were collected, while Philip Roth's entire oeuvre is included ("Our Gang"? Really?). I'd also like to see a volume of Bernard Malamud's complete short stories (though they were already collected in a single volume by FSG, he deserves to be in the LOA), as well as a volume dedicated to Djuna Barnes, and one for John O'Hara's better works. And if they're still interested in appealing to the Sci-Fi crowd, why not Ray Bradbury or Thomas Disch?

S said...

What about the Cozzens of The Last Adam, Castaway, Ask Me Tomorrow, Men and Brethren, The Just and the Unjust? Not a chance. But perhaps Guard of Honor will be relegated to a WWII anthology.

Amateur Reader said...

Nabokov did become an American citizen. Alexis de Tocquveille never did, though, so I don't think that rules anyone in or out.

Generous selections from Emily Dickinson are in the 2nd volume of the anthology of 19th century poetry, but she does not have her own book. I assume LoA wants the scholarly edition, which is not public domain.

For any copyrighted work, the issue is not just whether the writer belongs in the Library of America, but what deals need to be cut with the owner.

My original comment contains two embarassing errors. I should read some Nathanael West and The Damnation of Theron Ware as penance.

Shelley said...

Do they have Randall Jarrell? He's the type of critic we wish were around today, or I do....

Tony Rabig said...

Russell Kirk would be worth adding as well -- perhaps a volume including THE CONSERVATIVE MIND, ENEMIES OF THE PERMANENT THINGS, ELIOT AND HIS AGE, and selections from his other books of history and essays.

If good popular fiction is to be included, one day the editorial folks really should get around to John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Theodore Sturgeon, and Fritz Leiber.

And outside the genre categories, it wouldn't hurt to consider John O'Hara, Irwin Shaw, Evan Hunter, Don Robertson, and Thomas Williams.

Bests to all,