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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Comments (16)

Tom: The LOA is adding H. L. Mencken this September.


Posted by: D. Cloyce Smith | Thursday April 8, 2010 at 1:06 PM

Wallace Stegner

Posted by: Linda C. | Thursday April 8, 2010 at 2:14 PM

Great news about Mencken--thanks. Cross the first one off my list!

Posted by: Tom | Thursday April 8, 2010 at 4:02 PM

How about Thomas Wolfe? Upton Sinclair? Henry Roth? John Updike?

Posted by: Bob | Thursday April 8, 2010 at 5:18 PM

William James's The Principles of Psychology

Posted by: Isaac | Thursday April 8, 2010 at 6:15 PM

Truman Capote.

Posted by: Tom F | Friday April 9, 2010 at 6:24 AM

Why not consider me, or at least one of my works, perhaps The Teasdale Primer (For MBAs) or my latest novel Bluebonnets for Gargoyles? Unless you have a lot of money or great contacts, it is very difficult to get an agent or a publishing house to look at your work. There are some self-published works out there by American authors that are simply stunning.

Posted by: Darian Land | Friday April 9, 2010 at 7:30 AM

Just want to second the motion on Thomas Merton

Posted by: Eduardo | Friday April 9, 2010 at 8:06 AM

Updike, (as mentioned above) E.L. Doctorow, Thomas Pynchon, Vonnegut (certainly), Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Stanley Kunitz, Don DeLillo, John Barth, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, etc. could all fill future volumes.
Malcolm Jones asserts that the LOA has scraped the bottom of the barrel with 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th century writers, that recently "it became clear that the LOA wasn't going to wait any longer for time's verdict."
Obviously collections of previous centuries' writers will eventually become exahusted. Therefore it's hardly surprising at all that the LOA would want to include writers who still possess warm bodies, especially when Dick's collection is one of its bestsellers. Jones seems to believe that the LOA is some sort of Hall of Fame for American writers. What's the wait after retirement for him to allow a deceased author inclusion in the LOA? 10, 15, 25 years?

Posted by: Colin H. | Friday April 9, 2010 at 12:23 PM

Good call on Capote!

I agree w/ Colin H. (or maybe just with Malcolm J.) that the 17th-19th centuries are pretty well wrung out. All of my nominees are from the 20th C. My best nominee from before then would be ol' Albion Winegar Tourgee, whose A Fool's Errand, a Reconstruction-era novel worthy of Twain, would make a good volume combined with his Invisible Empire (a kind of Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin for Fool's Errand about the real-life KKK after the Civil War) and Bricks Without Straw.

Posted by: Tom | Friday April 9, 2010 at 5:04 PM

I'm just the marketing/production guy at the LOA, so don't have a real "say" in this matter--except for the not-very-subtle hints I can drop in the hallway. But here's my partial (and personal) list of authors, which is of course limited to who I've actually read. I’ve also limited myself to writers who are either dead or over 70 years old, and since it's "my" list, I've included writers who are held up because of copyright issues.

John Adams (coming 2011), John Quincy Adams, Sherwood Anderson, Louis Auchincloss, W.H. Auden, Djuna Barnes, Stephen Vincent Benet, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, William Wells Brown, Mary Chesnutt, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Albert Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Fuller, John Gardner, Ellen Glasgow, Caroline Gordon, Bret Harte, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, O. Henry, John Hersey, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr., Christopher Isherwood (American writings), Martin Luther King Jr., Maxine Hong Kingston, Ring Lardner, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Marquand, Cormac McCarthy, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, John O'Hara, Grace Paley, Dorothy Parker, Walker Percy, S.J. Perelman, Sylvia Plath, J.F. Powers, William Prescott, Thomas Pynchon, Adrienne Rich, Henry Roth, J.D. Salinger, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Jean Stafford, Wallace Stegner, William Styron, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut (coming 2011), Robert Penn Warren, E.B. White, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Wolfe

A number of these are actually "in the works," although firm pub dates have yet to be set--we can only afford to publish 9-12 volumes a year, and we still have a lot to publish by authors who are already in the series.

Posted by: D. Cloyce Smith | Saturday April 10, 2010 at 12:22 PM

I'd love to see collections of Charles Willeford added to the list. Like Cain, he's had one work (PICK-UP) included in LOA's Crime Novel collections, but there's so much more.

Also: Donald Westlake, David Goodis and John Gregory Dunne.

Posted by: Duane Swierczynski | Monday April 12, 2010 at 8:47 AM

Love all of the suggestions, and especially love getting the hallway view of what else might be coming down the pike from LOA. I'd love to see an MLK Jr. edition, but from what I've heard, his estate is about the toughest of all to crack. It's getting even more clear that LOA, rather than running dry, has far more good candidates than the publishing schedule can handle.

But one more idea: M.F.K. Fisher!

Posted by: Tom | Monday April 12, 2010 at 9:27 AM

LOA's Noir series opened up an entire array of stories I never knew existed.

This guy, Jones, needs some actual conflict in his life so he will stop trying to fabricate fantasy.

Posted by: jt in austin | Monday April 12, 2010 at 12:01 PM

Ring Lardner would be at the top of my list. There needs to be a new collected stories, at the very least. If you want to be iconoclastic, how about William Burroughs?

Posted by: Joe A. Carrera | Friday April 16, 2010 at 10:31 PM

S.J. Perelman is definitely a must. The gret Thruber is already in, but Perelman is the other indelible American humorist a tremendous writer to boot. The other (for me) titan is Gore Vidal. All his essays, all the "American Histroy" novels, and a selection of his other stuff. maybe even all of it. We're certainly getting all of Roth. I subscribe to LOA but am selective-- Have about 60 volumes so far.

Posted by: Dennis | Friday August 13, 2010 at 2:14 PM

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