The Library of America: Is the American Well Empty?

LOA_Complete In Newsweek today, Malcolm Jones argues that the Library of America, the project that has been publishing lovely--and relatively affordable--editions of "America's best and most significant writing" for over three decades, is at the risk of "jumping the shark" because there aren't any significant American writers left for them to publish:

It's a suspicion that's been growing for some time. Hard to say precisely when it started, maybe with the publication of living authors, maybe with whole volumes dedicated to—hmm, maybe it's cruel to label H. P. Lovecraft a second-tier writer, but maybe not so mean to call him a fringe author. Anyway, it's become harder and harder to ignore the fact that the Library of America is running out of writers.

He goes on to cite the upcoming inclusion of Shirley Jackson in their pantheon, as well as other "fringe" writers like Philip K. Dick and Dawn Powell, along with recent additions Cheever, Ashbery, and Carver, as evidence of the LOA's desperation for new monuments to add to their shrine.

What do you think? I think he's totally out to lunch. For me, when the LOA started adding people like Lovecraft, Dick, and Powell (or personal favorite Nathanael West) was when it started getting lively and interesting. I'm glad they do beautiful editions of titans like Lincoln, Whitman, and James, but I'm far more glad that they haven't just been passive about transmitting the canon, as it was spoken to them from above. For, knowing at least the genre-busting tastes of LOA editor-in-chief Geoffrey O'Brien, I'm pretty sure these riskier recent choices are not just attempts to fill a seasonal publishing list but are real arguments about which American books should--and will--last. I think there's something thrilling about seeing supposed ephemera like Dick's pulp genius or the war reporting of A.J. Liebling get the full ivory-page, sewn binding treatment. And I expect the well of great American writing is not nearly dry.

What would you add to the LOA? To see who's already in, you can consult the LOA's alphabetical listing. And if you really want to do your homework, you can purchase the complete set through 2010 as our Library of America Complete Collection (the set is currently missing a buy button, as they are reshuffling the collection for this year, but I'm told it will be live again within a couple of days). As Jones says, some of the current omissions (e.g. Hemingway, Eliot) are the result of copyright tussles not editorial choices, which may also apply to some of my choices below, but here are some names I'd like to see in that fat white cover calligraphy:

I'm just sticking to writers who are no longer with us (and not even including recent losses like Mailer, Vonnegut, and Salinger), but that's a pretty solid cross-section of as-yet-unenshrined American literature. Who is on your wish list? --Tom

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