Edmund Wilson and Jason Epstein, those giants of American letters, conceived the Library of America, one of the most ambitious and serious projects in the history of U.S. publishing, to provide authoritative texts, unencumbered by academic paraphernalia, of the canonical works of this country’s literature (drama, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), bound in handsome, uniform volumes and printed on for-the-ages stock — all at a reasonable price. It’s strayed from its mission, with both happy and, at times, questionable results.
LOA’s notion of what constitutes essential authors has expanded from the likes of Melville and Twain to such a motley crew as William Bartram, H. P. Lovecraft, and Charles W. Chesnutt. This is a more or less welcome development: what we lose in the slackening of canonical standards, we more than gain by having the works of neglected, commercially unviable, important-if-not-great writers easily and cheaply obtainable (though, really, Ambrose Bierce merits an LOA edition before, say, Charles Brockden Brown). On the other hand, some of the “special anthologies” containing writings by various authors — the baseball and “sea writing” compendia, the keepsake-y, prettily illustrated “gift book” American Writers at Home— seem like moneymaking schemes designed to help this nonprofit venture defray the cost of bringing James Weldon Johnson’s poetry and editorials within easy reach of every American book buyer. However remunerative, though, such productions of course threaten to dilute the brand, as they say. So, just months after reviewing LOA’s edition of the works of James Agee — who among other things is the most fancily literary film critic in our history— I greeted this 700-plus-page anthology of the writings of American movie critics (LOA can’t possibly get any deeper into pop culture than that) with some wariness, which hasn’t completely abated.
The editor, Phillip Lopate, opens his lengthy and deeply knowledgeable introduction with the declaration “It is arguable … that in