Posted: August 29, 2003
ast year, the now-defunct Partisan Review held a conference on the 50th anniversary of its seminal "Our Country, Our Culture" conference. The 1952 event marked a sea change among many American intellectuals who had begun to sense some of the deep attractions of American life and were finding ways to back out of the reflexive scorn for their country and their culture that had long been the identity badge of the American Left. In the year following 9/11, a similar re-discovery seemed to be in progress. At the opening dinner, I found myself at a dinner table with Gerald Weissmann, distinguished physician, biomedical researcher, and eloquent man of letters. I knew him, however, only by reputation and had never turned a page in The Woods Hole Cantata, Darwin's Audubon, or any of his other discursive books on the shoreline between science and literature. Perilous, those chance conversations with luminaries you know to be luminous but about whose actual work you are as ignorant as a sea cucumber.
We chatted about a project whose origins lay in that earlier rapprochement between America and the Left: the Library of America (LOA). Edmund Wilson in 1958 called on the United States to follow the example of the French, who had their Pléiade editions of great French writers. Americans had been notoriously more fickle towards their best writers. Not only had Moby Dick sunk to the cold depths of obscurity but, scandalously, William Faulkner's works at one point had all gone out of print. Here was a noble cause: gather the best American prose and poetry and publish it in uniform, reasonably priced editions that would stay in print for as long as the Republic would stand.
Wilson didn't live to see the realization of his dream, which came in 1979 with the help of the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. LOA was seen by many as a victory of Wilson's dream over a rival scheme favored by the Modern Language Association, but the series soon went in directions that Wilson never could have imagined.
I observed to Weissmann that the Library of America had started well but in recent years it had begun to pad its list more and more with writers of little real distinction. Some, like Kate Chopin, had been added to please the feminists. Some, like Zora Neale Hurston, appeared to be diversity hires. Nathanael West, author of The Day of the Locusts and Miss Lonelyhearts? Gay icon, I guess. A volume of John Muir's writings registers the environmentalist sympathies of our age. And then there is Gertrude Stein, who merits two volumes. Stein is a writer whose entire range lies between monotonic and moronic. Weissmann murmured in stern disapproval, and our conversation died away.
A week later I read in Darwin's Audubon Weissmann's tribute to a remarkable mind, "Gertrude Stein and the Ctenophore." Stein, he says, "changed forever the way we read the English language." Well perhaps. I don't find the examples quoted by Weissmann that revolutionary:
One does not like to feel different and if one does not like to feel different then one hopes that things will not look different. It is alright for them to seem different but not be different.
—Meditations of Being About to Visit My Native Land (1934)
What a day is today that is what a day it was a day before yesterday, what a day!"
—Broadcast on the Liberation (1944)
In fact, I think these are, like most of Stein's work, pretentious junk. Weissmann declares, "She wrote disinterested sentences the sound of which no false note of personality was permitted to disturb." No, she wrote affected, highly artificial sentences suffused with the ego of a self-conscious artiste in which almost every syllable strikes a false note.
The Library of America presumably aims to compass the distance between sensibilities like mine and Weissmann's. I would say that Stein is a curious relic of modernism from the era in which that movement was in full flood and incapable of distinguishing real accomplishment from flamboyant self-assertion. Stein is a literary footnote, not a writer who will blaze lightning across our skies or feed our souls in generations to come. But she has her intelligent defenders and that may be all that is needed to get snagged in the capacious LOA net.
Well, not quite all. The Library of America may aspire to contain multitudes, but the extras brought in to swell the Cecil B. De Mille crowd scenes seem more and more chosen to please the sensibilities of the Left. I don't want to overstate the case. I am delighted to have in these editions the collected major works of Benjamin Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. The two volume set, The Debate on the Constitution, is terrific. I've retired my worn out paperback editions of Faulkner, London, James, and Nabokov. Sometimes LOA rescues a writer who I might not otherwise have my way to, as when it re-published Ulysses S. Grant's superbMemoirs. In fact, I buy these volumes now no matter what.
And that explains why Charles W. Chesnutt's (1858-1932) writings are on my shelf. Chesnutt, best noted for his novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) about race relations in a southern town, is by any standard a minor talent. He merits his place in LOA, presumably, because the series is very eager to promote African-American writers. In addition to Chesnutt, LOA includes two volumes each of Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright, and single volumes of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, a volume of Slave Narratives and the two-volume, Reporting Civil Rights. Chesnutt and Hurston are the doubtful entries, but in general I find it hard to work up enthusiasm for any writer based on his social identity. He either speaks—like Douglass—across the generations and the social divisions or he does not.
Of course, a great many writers address themselves to a particular time and place and have no glint of the gold that transcends their circumstance. There is nothing amiss in that, for we enjoy the arts and entertainments that speak to us directly. But if we are going to trouble ourselves and call on the public purse to support a "Library of America," I would rather see some distinctions drawn between works that were evanescent and works that continue worthily to bid for our attention. Washington Irving's Tales and Sketches, yes; Washington Irving's The Alhambra, probably no. A two-volume set of the comic novels of Dawn Powell? Why not a one volume selection to see whether the attempt to re-introduce this forgotten writer succeeds?
Library of America eschews the idea that it is creating a canonical set of books. It sees the series as open-ended and serving many purposes. But its declarations along these lines are disingenuous. It is, by its very existence, a kind of canon, even if it regularly goes out of its way to include work of secondary or less-than-secondary importance. Perhaps the outstanding example of LOA tossing the baby and the bathwater into the back lot with the bald tires and rusty tractor parts is the two-volume American Poetry: The Twentieth Century where the near-great mix aimlessly with the near-catatonic.
A series like LOA can go wrong in lots of ways. It can succumb to pedantry by publishing works of interest mostly to academic specialists. (Do we really care about Harriet Beecher Stowe's other novels?) It can pander to popular taste (Baseball: A Literary Anthology). It can trivialize itself by collecting what amounts to stock entertainment (Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and '40s). And it can tacitly adopt a political or ideological bias. (Don't look for the LOA edition of Whitaker Chambers: Selected Writings anytime soon.) LOA has made every one of these mistakes. (And it also misspelled Herman Melville as Herman Meville on the title page of one volume, but I savor that.)
LOA would serve its best purposes better by checking these impulses, but I doubt that will happen. The closing of Partisan Review marked in a fashion the end of an era in which the Left was willing to acknowledge the objectivity of aesthetic standards. Perhaps the alternative with LOA is to insist on cultural fair play.
My test case is Thomas Green Fessenden (1771-1837), a vernacular verse writer that light-heartedly picked up the vocabulary and accents of rural folks in his native New Hampshire and Vermont, but then turned to intellectual and political satire. In 1803, he published a poem lampooning the medical profession, Terrible Tractoration! and then hit his stride with Democracy Unveiled or, Tyranny Stripped of the Garb of Patriotism, which he published in 1805 under the pseudonym Christopher Caustic.
Fessenden meets every possible LOA anti-criterion. He is sufficiently obscure and unread to warm the heart of any pedant. In his time he appealed to nothing but popular taste. His college poem, "The Country Lovers or Mr. Jonathan Jolthead's Courtship with Miss Sally Snapper," (1795) was a newspaper staple for half a century and he went on to become the genial editor of The New England Farmer's Almanack (1828-1836). Fessenden is nothing if not trivial. Hawthorne referred to his "guileless simplicity" and "jog-trot stanzas." And best of all, Fessenden hated Jeffersonian democracy. His screed against Jefferson, Democracy Unveiled, proclaims:
And I'll unmask the Democrat
Your sometimes this thing, sometimes that,
Whose life is one dishonest shuffle,
Lest he perchance the mob should ruffle.
I don't share Tom Fessenden's enthusiasms or dislikes, but he does look to me like an antidote for LOA's embrace of leftist identity politics: an American original, one of our home-grown eccentrics who offers an unsettling mixture of gullibility and shrewdness. Fessenden is the unacknowledged patron saint of today's bloggers and the citizenry that hangs out at places like FreeRepublic.com. If we can have two volumes of Gertrude Stein, I think we can stand one volume of Fessenden, who has been out of print—hang your head at the injustice—for over 150 years.