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Book Review : Library Is Preserving the Best in U.S. Literature

May 15, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The Library of America marches on. Being published this week is a volume of Edith Wharton, containing four of her novels--"The House of Mirth," "The Reef," "The Custom of the Country" and "The Age of Innocence." It is the 30th title since 1982 in the extraordinary undertaking that aims to do nothing less than preserve all the best of American literature in a series of uniform, attractive, readable, durable and impeccably edited volumes.

The Library, which has hardly begun to invade the 20th Century (Faulkner, Jack London and now Wharton), let alone exhaust the 18th and 19th centuries, will surely run to 100 volumes or more before it is completed. Theoretically, of course, it will never be finished, so long as American writers continue to write, and write well.

Before the Library of America, it often enough happened that only the best-known works of even the best-known American writers were reliably available. Stephen Crane's fiction, for example, was in print, but his poetry and his compelling journalism were out of print. (Crane covered the Spanish-American War from Cuba, the Greek war of independence from Greece, and more.) The Library's one-volume complete Stephen Crane makes it possible for us to see Crane as we are accustomed to seeing Hemingway: the novelist and the journalist as one.

Several more titles are already in work. Due out Aug. 1 (or, appropriately, on the Fourth of July if production can be advanced) is a two-volume edition of Henry Adams' "History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison," which Adams first circulated in half a dozen privately printed copies each in 1884 and 1885. Some scholars think it's his finest work, superior even to "The Education of Henry Adams," which was included in an earlier Adams volume in the Library of America series.

In mid-September the Library will bring out an edition of muckraker Frank Norris' volume containing several of his essays and three of his novels, including "McTeague," which became the basis for Erich von Stroheim's silent film masterpiece "Greed."

Scheduled for November is a selection of the writings of the sociologist-teacher W. E. B. Du Bois, the son of a French Huguenot and an African slave. Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folk," which is in the new volume, was first published in 1903. He published his last book in 1961 and died, at the age of 95, in 1963. The book is being edited by Nathan Huggins, with historian John Hope Franklin as consultant.

Also scheduled for November is a Willa Cather volume, the first of two, this embracing novels and short stories from 1896 to 1922 and including "O Pioneers," "The Song of the Lark," "My Antonia" and "One of Ours," for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1987 there will be additional volumes of Mark Twain ("Tales and Sketches") and Ralph Waldo Emerson ("Poetry and Sketches"), the Collected Works of Benjamin Franklin and of Flannery O'Connor (edited by Sally Fitzgerald, who edited O'Connor's letters and has written her biography) and a volume of William James ("Writings 1902-1910").

Looking further ahead, the Library hopes to publish in 1988 a volume on the Founding Fathers and the debates over the Constitution, Federalists vs. anti-Federalists. The Library has just received a special grant from the Bradley Foundation to commence work on it. Historian Bernard Bailyn of Harvard will edit the volume.

The Library has had another grant, from the Mellon Foundation, specifically to encourage and abet the acquisition of the whole Library of America collection by public libraries. It is a matching grant: $500 against $500 from qualifying libraries. (The simple qualifications: The library must be open 30 hours a week and have a librarian and very limited book-buying funds.)

Says Gail Rentsch, spokeswoman for the Library, "For its $500 the library receives 60 Library of America titles, the existing 30 and, by 1990, the balance of the 60. We hope with the grant to give the series to a thousand libraries." It is a considerable bargain, since the individual volumes average $27.50 retail and $21.50 by advance subscription.

Nearly 500 libraries qualified in a first round of applications, and a second round of applications is just now being processed.

"The response, and the intensity of enthusiasm, has been remarkable," Rentsch says. "Some of the libraries we heard from had never had any of these works on their shelves, except, perhaps, Mark Twain."

One library auctioned off a homemade quilt to raise its $500; another reported that it raffled off 79 volumes of Louis L'Amour.

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