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Edmund Wilson’s Big Idea: A Series of Books Devoted to Classic American Writing. It Almost Didn’t Happen.

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, September/October 2015 | Volume 36, Number 5

The nonprofit publisher Library of America has released almost two hundred seventy volumes of classic American writing. Its black dust jackets with an image of the author and a simple red, white, and blue stripe running below the author’s name, rendered in a fountain-pen-like hand, help give the clothbound volumes a timeless feel, as if copies might have been found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dorm room or Henry James’s steamer trunk. But the series is nowhere near that old. It began publication in 1982.

It did, however, take a long time to become a reality.

Jason Epstein remembers the day he joined Edmund Wilson at the bar of the Princeton Club, in New York City, where, in the presence of numerous martinis, Wilson said exactly what he wanted the publishing industry to do: bring out a series of books that would be small enough to fit in the pocket of his raincoat and be filled with classic American writing.

This was in the mid 1950s. Epstein was a young hero of the paperback revolution, having discovered the market for inexpensive editions of quality backlist titles, and Wilson was the aging dean of American lit. They were connected professionally. Epstein’s imprint, Anchor Books at Doubleday, had reissued some of Wilson’s work, starting with To the Finland Station, originally published in 1940.

And the two bookmen had been friends ever since a memorable meeting aboard the Ile de France. The Epsteins had been traveling in first class and the Wilsons in second class. On New Year’s Eve, Epstein invited the Wilsons to dine with him and his wife, the writer and editor Barbara Epstein. But when the foursome came to the table, they discovered settings for six and that another couple, Buster Keaton and his wife, were sitting with them.

Now, Wilson was a “prestidigitator,” a toothy, five-dollar word meaning sleight of hand artist that Epstein pronounces with a slack kind of ease. And at that dinner there happened to be festive little cotton balls, a celebratory touch for passengers’ amusement. With these cotton balls Wilson began to juggle. Keaton, of course, had been performing on stage since the low single digits, so he joined in. “And that was their conversation. They didn’t say a word,” says Epstein.

At the Princeton Club, Wilson impressed upon Epstein his idea for a series devoted to classic American writing. The model for these books would be publisher Gallimard’s Pléiades series of leather-bound, pocket-sized classics in French.

The idea that American literature deserved serious attention was relatively new. In 1920, the American writer Floyd Dell complained, “We actually know, most of us, no more of American literature than a European knows.” Van Wyck Brooks, H. L. Mencken, and others promoted American writing in various ways, but until World War II, it was still something of a niche cause.

On its face, Wilson’s idea might have seemed to have commercial potential, but, even in this golden era of book publishing, Epstein was certain that only a small number of titles would really sell. He determined it would have to be a nonprofit venture with philanthropic backing. Epstein and his friend John Thompson, a former English professor working at the Farfield Foundation (a CIA front in the days when Cold War spooks underwrote a good bit of highbrow culture), developed a proposal, listing among the advisers Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Van Wyck Brooks, and Alfred Kazin:

A curious and serious fact of American culture today is that the most important part of our cultural heritage is not available to us.The classics of our literature are unobtainable. The works of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau,Twain, Henry James, and other great writers of our past are out of print except for isolated volumes. The works of several of these writers have never been printed in satisfactory editions; the works of others like Whitman and Poe exist only in incomplete form.

The Ford Foundation was not interested. Edward F. D’Arms of the foundation’s Humanities and Arts Program met with Thompson, but, as recorded in a 1959 memo, “said he saw no possibility of assistance from this source.”

Where to get the money was one thing. Had you asked a scholarly editor what it would take to carry out Wilson’s big idea, another question would have come up. Exactly which books—and just as important, which texts—were you talking about?

See, there is the familiar canonical question of which authors and which works to include, but once you’ve said yea or nea on that score, there is still the technical question of which version of a text to publish. Editors may have tinkered with the prose without the author’s knowledge. Reprinters may have introduced typos. Descendants may have had their way with certain passages before releasing the memoirs.

Did it matter? Consider the example of the famous scholar F. R. Leavis, who once cited a passage from Henry James’s journeyman novel Roderick Hudson to prove that James was a better writer early on than people generally believed. Only the passage Leavis cited was not from an 1875 edition of Roderick Hudson; it came from a version that James reedited late in his career as part of a whole revisionist series called The New York Edition. The professor was actually quoting a late Henry James rewrite to prove that early Henry James had a highly developed style.

Wilson and Epstein were not the only ones thinking about the American classics. In the 1940s, the American Literature Group of the Modern Language Association (MLA) had pursued an editorial project along these lines. Finally, in 1962, MLA invited some sixty editors, publishers, and foundation officials to a meeting at New York University to revive the idea.

“Shortly after the invitations had gone out,” John H. Fisher of the MLA later wrote, “Mr. Epstein arrived at the MLA office with a copy of the handsome India-paper Pléiade edition of the Poe in translation. . . . He wondered whether his project and ours could not be combined. We explained that this was impossible because the first effort of the MLA Center would be to support editorial work on six editions already planned, some of which had been struggling along for some time.”

There was much tension between the two projects. As MLA shopped its proposal to various foundations, Epstein was often knocking on the same doors. According to Fisher, “it turned out that on nearly every occasion Mr. Epstein with or without Mr. Thompson arrived just before us or just after us at the same foundation.”

Epstein sought and gained letters of support from Wilson himself, a number of illustrious scholars, and no less a personage than President Kennedy, but no backers. Around the same time, an MLA proposal to the Ford Foundation was dismissed as “a typical scholarly enterprise.”

The founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 tipped the scales in MLA’s favor, as their project, the Center for Editions of American Authors, sought and received major support for multiple editing projects. NEH also set aside funds for a publication project under the name “Constellation Library.” All this did little to affect the general availability of classic American writings in print.

In 1968, Wilson took his revenge in the pages of the New York Review of Books, cofounded just a few years earlier by Epstein. Lewis Mumford, best known for his writings on the history of cities, set things in motion with a blistering review of The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in six volumes, half of them under the auspices of the Center for Editions of American Authors (CEAA). The Emerson volumes had included, it seemed to Mumford, everything that might be included (juvenilia, for example, and numerous manuscript revisions seen “through a barbed wire entanglement of diacritical marks”), but not a clean reading text. “Nothing has been lost by this process—except Emerson.”

Shortly afterward, Wilson weaponized Mumford’s case against the Emerson journals into “Fruits of the MLA,” a ruthless, two-part polemic against the Center for Editions of American Authors. Self-quoting the entirety of his letter of support to Jason Epstein, Wilson made the case for his American classics series and took no prisoners.

He dismissed CEAA’s editors as a bunch of tasteless Midwesterners and the MLA as “an employment agency.” A scholar working on one of the Mark Twain projects had written to Wilson, describing the tedious work by which crews of readers simultaneously perused various editions of texts to find discrepancies. This work was funded separately by federal grants for work-study, and many of the findings amounted, unsurprisingly, to spelling discrepancies and minor punctuation differences. To focus more perfectly on such mind-numbing details the readers even experimented with reviewing text backward, an anecdote Wilson seized on to merciless advantage. In Wilson’s rendering, reading Twain backward, at government expense, fit perfectly with the developing caricature of the scholarly editor as a bureaucratic cancer, a champion of trivia, as someone like Fredson Bowers, about whom it was said, Wilson wrote, “that, in editing Leaves of Grass, he had done everything for it but read it.”

The CEAA’s scholarly editors pointed out important inconsistencies and sheer prejudices in Wilson’s attack. Showing how easy it was for information to become corrupted, the editors tallied several factual errors made by Wilson. In a discussion of how many pages a CEAA edition had allotted to critical apparatus, his numbers didn’t even add up.

A major controversy was born. Time magazine quoted Matthew Bruccoli, one of the editors working on the CEAA’s Hawthorne project, saying “Edmund Wilson, who is to be admired and cherished for the things he can do, has made a fool of himself this time. He is very, very wrong.”

Wilson’s essay won over many others, however, and put a bee in the bonnet of McGeorge Bundy, former national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson but since 1966 president of the Ford Foundation. Bundy directed foundation staff to pull the old files related to the Epstein-Wilson proposal and begin soliciting professional opinions on how to make it work.

In 1970, NEH focused attention on the CEAA project at a press conference, with Bruccoli, now the center’s director, as a featured speaker. Bruccoli had been encouraged by NEH’s director of research programs, William Emerson, to take the reins of CEAA, even as it was coming under fire for low productivity and an overly bureaucratic leadership.

According to Richard Layman, who worked briefly with him at CEAA and for many years afterward, Bruccoli was brought on “to terminate the CEAA and cut the losses.” But Bruccoli, who liked to say that “publication is the essential act of scholarship,” was not the quiet, fading type. He once confronted a delinquent scholar by showing up at his house. “He was a forceful man,” says Layman. “He did a lot of good. And made a lot of enemies. And that’s the story of the CEAA.”

Bruccoli worked hard to keep NEH’s chairman Barnaby Keeney on his side. In preparation for a meeting with his editors, he asked Keeney to write him a letter “expressing your displeasure and disappointment at the output of volumes,” with an itemized list of the volumes that should already have been published. Keeney obliged with some tough talk for the record, but a month later sent another letter, candidly stating that, indeed, “the slow pace of the editions, the sumptuous emoluments for some of the scholars and other matters will militate against another successful application, at least in the customary way.”

CEAA looked around for other patrons, unsuccessfully applying for a grant from the Ford Foundation, where Bundy and others continued to look for ways to make Wilson’s idea a reality, made no less urgent by Wilson’s death in 1972. A proposal from American studies professor Kenneth Lynn for a paperback series of American classics, to be brought out in partnership with a commercial publisher, received serious consideration, but also resistance. The foundation’s vice president of arts programming, W. McNeil Lowry, called the Lynn plan a “sour plum,” adding, “I do not believe that there are many American publishers, large or small, who would risk biting into it.”

After failing to persuade either staff or his board of trustees to support an investment in publishing American classics, Bundy put the idea aside. Meanwhile, the CEAA project, despite Bruccoli’s strong hand on the wheel, continued to wind down as NEH support came to an end in August 1976. The bicentennial would have been a great year to celebrate American literature with the announcement of a major new publishing effort devoted to classic American writing, but it was not to be.

Yet the idea was not quite dead. If the friendship between Wilson and Epstein first set things in motion, the friendship between Bundy and Roger Kennedy at the Ford Foundation revived it.

Bundy, a key member of JFK’s brain trust, was the consummate insider. Roger Kennedy, the vice president of the office of finance during a terrible bear market, was much more than a numbers guy. In his diary, the scholar Daniel Aaron once described Kennedy: “ambitious, great lucidity of mind, vain, generous, thoughtless, banker-artist. Takes voice lessons, lectures on architecture.”

Life became more difficult for Kennedy when he was hit by a car one day while riding a bicycle through Central Park. As he convalesced, Bundy was a true friend, helping him to and from work, and helping him keep it together. In an interview years later with Joe M. Thomas, an American literature scholar then working for the Library of America on a chronology of its founding, Kennedy said that Bundy actually took him under his wing and, along the way, gave him an education in institutional politics.

As a thank you to Bundy, whose retirement was in sight, Kennedy, after becoming vice president of arts programming at Ford, picked up the American classics project where it had been set aside, with the conclusion that the only plan worth pursuing was one that combined high editorial standards and bookmaking panache. Ford also wanted a partner to help finance the series, and a way to reconcile it to CEAA’s scholarly editing projects.

Kennedy worked with Epstein to bring in new talent to write a new proposal. Some vulgar touches appeared, such as the notion that the series be named after someone—possibly the Bundy Classics or the Carter Classics—but these quickly fade from the paper trail.

In October 1977, Joseph M. Duffey, President Carter’s choice to head NEH, was sworn in as chairman. He soon heard from Bundy and Kennedy, both of whom he knew. Kennedy had, in fact, advised Carter on his selection of Duffey. Within a few months, a much-revised project description was circulating the Ford Foundation. It had two audiences: Ford itself and NEH.

The new proposal showed more political savvy than the old Epstein-Wilson approach. The primary consultants, recruited by Epstein, were two scholars with New York connections, Daniel Aaron and Richard Poirier. Aaron, one of the first PhDs ever minted in American civilization, had been praised by Wilson himself as a “tireless” scholar of American writing. Poirier, a former editor of Partisan Review and the author of several literary studies, was now at Rutgers University. Among other things, Poirier recruited William Schaefer, executive director of the Modern Language Association. Schaefer, who had taken a dubious view of CEAA and of Bruccoli’s leadership, wrote a letter on MLA letterhead, included in the proposal, expressing interest and offering assistance.

The books themselves would be hardcover, moderately priced, and “uncluttered by textual paraphernalia.” They would eventually include “every important title in American literature in the public domain.” And they would be made “permanently available.” Texts from the scholarly editions of CEAA and its successor, the Center for Scholarly Editions, would be used, when possible. Students and libraries counted as the most likely buyers. Major authors (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James) would be well represented, but so would minor classics (diaries of George Templeton Strong). Thematic collections such as slave narratives and works in history, philosophy, and other areas “would help liberalize and expand the American literary canon.” One detail, in particular, stands out, “that the ‘American Library’ be printed and distributed by the Library of Congress.”

Chairman Duffey was committed to hearing from all sides. After the Ford Foundation submitted an application in April of 1978, Kennedy and Duffey spoke by phone. Kennedy came away filled with anxiety. He then wrote to Duffey. “I’m well aware that there is a necessary process through which all ideas brought to the National Endowment for the Humanities must pass, just as there is to those brought here [the Ford Foundation]. I’m also painfully aware that in either place the suffocating inertia of the bureaucracy may smother a good idea.” About the American classics project, he said, “I fear for its life.”

Kennedy had good reason to be afraid. NEH staff was largely opposed to the project, which, despite personnel changes, still smacked of Wilson and the New York intellectuals, especially in the person of Jason Epstein.

Duffey recalls being worried that his reputation would suffer if it looked like he was making major financial commitments without consulting anyone. Also, the way forward was unclear. Contrary to Kennedy’s comment, there was no obvious process at NEH for the Ford application. Duffey had established a Division of Special Projects through which NEH could fund applications, like this one, that did not fit existing grant programs. As for a review process, Duffey made one up, soliciting input as necessary from relevant parties and even holding large meetings where critics squared off with applicants.

The Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, weighed in against the application at a meeting in August at NEH. He had serious doubts about the very idea of an American canon and reportedly said that in fifty years maybe the television show Starsky and Hutch would be considered a classic. Aaron noted afterward, “Prospect very much damaged, I think.”

Was opposition to the plan a matter of principle or self-interest? “More of the latter,” says Duffey. NEH’s budget was growing, and one of Duffey’s goals as chairman was to broaden the agency’s influence far beyond New York City and the Ivy League. This made existing stakeholders nervous.

Herbert Bailey, head of the Princeton University Press, came out swinging against the Ford proposal in a written critique. The books would be too bulky, he argued. He also thought that full implementation should be preceded by a pilot project, that the university presses should be the ones to bring out such volumes, and that the proposers’ sales projections were inflated.

After awarding them a modest planning grant in the fall of 1978, NEH told the group—by now a nonprofit called Literary Classics of the United States headed by Aaron—to file a final proposal in December. The Ford Foundation committed to $600,000 in support, conditional on the project receiving twice that from NEH. In January, a large meeting at NEH brought together panelists, outside reviewers, confirmed enemies, and Aaron, Epstein, Kennedy, and Poirier in yet another departure from how applications were normally reviewed. Attendees submitted comments in writing, and the meeting ended with a vote in which panelists opposed the project eight to two.

This might have been the end of the line, but Duffey and Bundy continued to talk. “Joe and I agreed that the name of the game was not whether to move, but how,” Bundy wrote in a memo. Duffey asked for revisions to the proposal. And during a subsequent meeting at NEH, the chairman showed his hand: He wanted the project to be funded. This set off an intense bout of lobbying, as Bundy and Kennedy counted votes on NEH’s National Council and targeted fence-sitters.

Bundy later described for Thomas what he called the “New York-end view,” which was “whoever gets in our way, something has to be done about it; whoever should be helping us and isn’t, somebody has to talk to them.” Kennedy described it as “good old down and dirty Midwest politicking.”

On February 22 and 23, the National Council met. Duffey spoke, according to the official summary, saying the project was intended to address a problem: If a professor wished to teach a course in nineteenth-century American literary works, it was difficult to get the right books. He said the Endowment should support the project, but proceed carefully.

John Hope Franklin, a member of the Council, asked what questions the chairman still had. Duffey said he felt that more data was needed, and that hard limits ought to be placed on the grant support. Council member Truman Madsen circled back to the idea of a pilot project, but Duffey thought not. The discussion ended there, according to the record, which then says, “On a vote approval of the application was unanimously recommended.” The grant would be worth $1.2 million.

Critics of the application were irate. Herbert Bailey was “particularly distressed to see what is essentially a promotional campaign disguised as scholarship. It’s the disguise that hurts, since the effort is bound to confuse people new to the subject and to undermine the effort to produce scholarly editions.” This was in a letter to the scholarly editor Thomas Tanselle, after Tanselle had been approached by Poirier and Epstein to oversee editorial policy for the project.

A veteran of CEAA still working on the Melville editing project, Tanselle had been named among the guilty in Wilson’s attack in the New York Review of Books. Bundy had told Epstein that to win over NEH they needed more “window dressing,” but the addition of Tanselle completed what began with the casting of Aaron and Poirier as the leading literary scholars of the operation: a rough synthesis of scholarship and New York City publishing brio.

Unlike CEAA, Tanselle emphasized, this new venture was not an editing project. It was a publishing project, and the goal was to identify, through research and observation, the best available text—not the best parts of different texts to be combined into yet one more corrupt edition. Instead, the editors would search for the one existing text, a CEAA-licensed text if one was available, or possibly an early edition, that best reflected the author’s intentions. And only typos would be corrected.

Prefaces were moved to the back and their content refined, an idea that proceeded from the original plan of presenting a clean reading text. Thin, acid-free paper would be used to ensure trimness and durability. Logos and book jackets were not yet designed but were not long off. Significantly, a name for the books had not yet been decided. Cheryl Hurley, who had been working for the Modern Language Association, was hired as executive director, and office space would soon be arranged.

Everything was moving forward, but on April 30, an article in Publishers Weekly announced a project called the American Library. The publisher was Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and the lead editor was Matthew Bruccoli, the old hard-driving head of CEAA.

The news “came like thunderclap and hints strangely at skullduggery,” wrote Aaron in his diary. At NEH, the Ford-led American classics project had sometimes been criticized for its potential to be self-financing and therefore ineligible for a government grant. (Of course, there were also criticisms from the opposite direction, that the project would lose too much money.)

Aaron heard that Duffey was on edge and worried that Congress would call the grant a misuse of funds. He reached out to a friend at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for advice and talked strategy with Bundy and Kennedy at Ford. He then sent William Jovanovich a diplomatic letter, saying that news of HBJ’s American Library had startled him a little because it duplicated “point by point” a project he had been working on for three years. Aaron enclosed a copy of the proposal and mentioned that it was now supported by Ford and NEH to the tune of $1.8 million.

The parties met to discuss. It was, according to Aaron’s diary, a “rather grim session” with Matthew Bruccoli, Jovanovich, and Jovanovich’s son Peter. Jovanovich was visibly impressed by the scholarly backing that had been summoned for Aaron’s project. Aaron thought HBJ’s project not nearly as far along. He felt particularly suspicious of Bruccoli, whom he believed might be in touch with “adversaries at NEH.” A month later, however, Jovanovich wrote to Roger Kennedy to say his company would cease working on American Library.

Edmund Wilson’s idea was finally becoming a reality. After its initial grant from NEH, however, the Literary Classics of the United States, like the editing projects of the former CEAA and all other applicants, could not count on the ongoing support of NEH, which still funds projects one at a time.

“A great wrong . . . set right” read the advertisements, in early 1982, announcing the Library of America, whose series name had been settled on at the last possible minute. The first four volumes (sold by subscription and in bookstores) included Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

About the Author

David Skinner is editor of HUMANITIES.

Funding Information

NEH has awarded numerous grants to the Library of America and the Modern Language Association. In addition to the breakthrough $1.2 million grant to Library of America in 1979, NEH has awarded $3.14 million in ten separate grants since the early eighties to support a variety of editorial and public outreach projects from the Library of America. Library of America’s most recent grant was for The Civil War Told by Those Who Lived It. The Center for Editions of American Authors received just over $3 million in funding from NEH until 1974. One of its original scholarly editing projects, the Mark Twain Project, has received more than $6 million in grants from NEH since 1982, resulting in, among other publications, Autobiography of Mark Twain. The Modern Language Association’s latest grant is for Humanities CORE, an effort to develop software that would help scholarly organizations to communicate and collaborate better. Sources: “The Library of America: A Documentary Chronology Through 1982” (unpublished) by Joe M. Thomas; Papers of Daniel Aaron at the Houghton Library; Ford Foundation Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center; the National Endowment for the Humanities archive at the National Archives; Daniel J. Boorstin Papers at the Library of Congress; interviews.