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The American Literary Heritage

May 2024
1min read


IN MAY the Library of America—the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to put the best of American literature into the hands of the general reader—entered its second year of operation. Between May and July, four more handsome, compact volumes will come out, thus adding to the eight that saw publication in 1982. When the project is completed, a total of one hundred uniform books will have been issued, and the library will serve as a true act of literary preservation. Major American authors will be represented in the series by several volumes each—often their complete works.

The response to the initial titles—which include works by Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, Howells, Stowe, London and Twain—was exultant, and Cheryl Hurley, executive director of the Library of America, reports that the books are selling well. One hundred and twenty-five thousand copies have been sold to date, which at twenty-five dollars apiece have been judged a bargain by critics and reviewers (“At last—a classic series that’s a triumph of the bookmaker’s art,” said Publishers Weekly ). The books run from one thousand to fifteen hundred pages of thin but opaque paper, set in clear ten-point type, and securely sewed, not glued, into quietly elegant bindings. A ribbon marker is bound into each one.

The four upcoming books are the second volume of Herman Melville’s works (including Moby-Dick, Redburn and White-Jacket ); the second volume of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, consisting of all his completed novels; and in July two volumes of Francis Parkman’s histories.

The idea for this ambitious project dates back to the early 1960s when the critic Edmund Wilson said that “it is absurd that our most read and studied writers should not be available in their entirety in any convenient form.” In 1979 starting grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation allowed the nonprofit Library of America to get under way. The first books appeared in the spring of 1982. A distinguished board of scholars, writers, and publishers advises the officers of the project, which is headed by Daniel Aaron of Harvard University. Each volume contains a brief biography of the author and notes about the individual works included in the book.

The Library of America titles, which will be kept in print indefinitely, are distributed to bookstores by The Viking Press; subscriptions are handled by Time-Life Books. For further information, write to Library of America, One Lincoln Plaza, New York, NY 10023.

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