Sunday, August 05, 2012

`The Best Pesticide'

The latest Library of America catalog has arrived and the news is comically bleak. This I deduced from the cover, a “futuristic” rendering of blue-gray humanoids, a yellow tower of Dali-esque curves and a background of angry red – in short, sci-fi kitsch. If there’s a theme to the LoA’s new offerings, it goes beyond mere dumbing-down or barrel-scraping. Rather, it’s the project’s ongoing juvenilization of the American literary canon, signaled earlier by the inclusion of volumes devoted to H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and John Ashbery. 

Open the catalog and find the first two pages devoted to a two-volume boxed edition of The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (price: $75). I’ve never read the books, published between 1932 and 1943, and have no intention of doing so. The series, I know, is much-loved, but books written for children have no place in a publishing venture dedicated to “America's best and most significant writing,” as the LoA boasts. Turn the page, and the news grows grimmer: American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, in two volumes totaling 1,680 pages (price: $70). In short, sub-literature for stunted adolescents. Will it sell? Of course, with generations of grownups touting the stuff to kids. Turn another page and the descent continues: Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, 790 pages of prose from the tinniest of tin ears (price: $40).

Such books appear while worthy American writers and works remain unrepresented in the LoA: Thoreau’s journals, the fiction of Peter De Vries and J.F. Powers, the journalism of Joseph Mitchell and Whitney Balliett, the poems and prose of Marianne Moore and Louise Bogan, judicious selections from Sherwood Anderson and Edward Dahlberg, and a collection representing Yvor Winters and the Stanford School. We can be grateful Vladimir Nabokov has three volumes in the Library of America. In a 1968 interview included in Strong Opinions (1973), he says: 

“No, I loathe popular pulp…I loathe science fiction with its gals and goons, suspense and supersensories…And, really, I don’t think I mock popular trash more often than do other authors who believe with me that a good laugh is the best pesticide.”

3 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

The Library of America collection is quite impressive overall, held together across many genres and styles by a collective desire to capture the details and passions of the dizzyingly varied American experience. Sure there’s a few striking omissions: Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Yates, Joseph Heller, not to mention more obscure literary geniuses like Marguerite Young, William Gaddis, John Crowley, Henry Roth, etc. I too would question some choices (Why A.R. Ammons over Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, James Wright or Sylvia Plath; why eight volumes by Philip Roth but nothing by Thomas Pynchon; why all of Kerouac’s poems instead of all his novels; why Kenneth Koch over Frank O’Hara; why right-wing reactionary Zora Neale Hurston but not former communist Ralph Ellison; why Pauline Kael but not Lester Bangs; why John Updike’s homage to Ted Williams over anything by Ring Lardner. It’s a fun game I suppose but this is after all a business, driven by collaborative dictates even more than financial considerations, where matters of taste, always subjective, must battle it out in unimaginable snake pits.

As for this “ongoing juvenilization of the American literary canon,” using Philip K. Dick (one of the most bafflingly brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered) in this context is about what I’d expect from someone who claims not to have read Poe past the age of 12.

George said...

There must be copyright obstacles for some of the omissions, though heaven knows Emily Dickinson ought to be in the public domain by now. Ellison, after all, is dead but still publishing, or at least he was within the last couple of years.

When the series began, Hugh Kenner wrote an essay for Harpers, mentioning a number of matters: the canon, the copyrights, and the unwieldiness of the books. The books really are compact as American books go--on my own shelves, volume 1 of Adams's History of the United States / 1801-1809 at 1300 pages as visibly less bulky than the 700 pages of Morison's The European Discovery of America: the Northern Voyages, and somewhat smaller than the 900 pages of Gordon Craig's Germany 1866-1945. Yet, as Kenner remarked, they are distinctly bulkier than the volumes of the French Pleiade: 1600 pages of Saint-Simon's Memoirs, 1691-1701, are the same in width but just about exactly an inch less in each page dimension.

I have come to prefer smaller books for easy of handling and reading. Were I a teacher, I'd have to require that the students bring volumes such as a Riverside Shakespeare or McKeon's hefty edition of Aristotle--otherwise, how would one provide quick references to this or that bit of the text? For my own reading, I'd rather have something the shape of a Penguin or Oxford World's Classics to drop in my pocket and take along.

The Sanity Inspector said...

George might enjoy a revival of the Everyman's Library, then. These were editions of literature, sized to put in soldiers' packs, or so I've heard.

As for Philip K. Dick, it helps to have once been a spacey adolescent, in order to resonate to the fever dreams he spun. For that reason I don't intend to go back, here in midlife, and re-read things like "Valis".