All the signs, we are continually told, point to rapid economic recovery in the US, and the Stock Market, perhaps because of this iteration, moves almost daily to new record highs. But unofficial individuals seem cautious or sceptical. Friendly foreigners, especially if they knew this country a generation back, are likely to note the discrepancy between the adman bullishness of government spokesmen and a certain dour disenchantment that has persisted as an ingredient of the American mood during the post-Camelot, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam years. Perhaps this is most noticeable in New York, a city now too notorious for its filth, brutality and cynical manners; the two notions that you need to be pretty tough to live there, and that things can only get worse, cause people to act tough and do a lot of complaining, especially about the economic situation.

Few moan louder than the publishers, and the measures they adopt to ease their pain are likely to cause suffering in others. Backlists vanish; even newish paperbacks disappear before they can be prescribed for college classes. If you do find what you want it is likely to be badly printed on ephemeral paper, with no usable margins, at maybe ten times the price you would have paid in the Sixties. Publishers blame the cost of paper and warehousing, and the decline of the reading public. The public blames the publishers for selling out to profit-hungry conglomerates. Bookshops disappear, and the range of titles in the survivors shrinks daily.

It would be easy enough to prolong this lament, but the truth may be that things aren’t as bad as all that. They can be changed if there is a mind, as there is money, to change them. The new journal Vanity Fair has just reappeared after months of preliminary publicity and the expenditure of very large amounts of cash. It is amazingly lavish, lush of colour, and confident of a huge upmarket readership, which must, if it exists, be a blend of the Vogue and the New Yorker audience, with a dash of more rarefied spirits. They say a sale of 250,000 will be necessary: whether that will be attainable may depend on the willingness of the editors to adapt the paper to an actual rather than a merely conjectured audience. The first number has a lot of bright scrappy pieces buried in the undergrowth of advertisements, with one dominant feature, a whole novel by Marquez, not best read, I should have thought, in the middle of a fat magazine: but the investors presumably have better information on the market than I do. At any rate the venture can hardly be faulted on the score of timidity. It is hardly the kind of thing imaginable anywhere but in New York. London need fear no such disturbances.

However, there is another enterprise afoot, also in its present form entirely American, at which the British might want to look with a more active or even an envious interest. The idea of a library of American literary classics, on the model of the French Pléiade editions, might have occurred to anybody, but seems to have been first mooted by Edmund Wilson in 1961, when there was already some concern about the inaccessibility of many important American books. The idea was taken up, but in a form Wilson deplored, for the grant money went to minutely, indeed pedantically edited complete editions, to be published by university presses under the auspices of the Modern Language Association. These doubtless very accurate texts did nothing to make books more generally available, and as the position grew worse in the Seventies the original plan for an American Pléiade was revived. The need was for accurate but unfussy texts that might stand not so much on library shelves as on those of the ordinary educated reader.

After many vicissitudes the Library of America was launched, under the direction of Daniel Aaron, Richard Poirier and Jason Epstein, who had worked with Wilson on the original abortive project. These people and their associates raised $600,000 from the Ford Foundation and then $1.2 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Then they went to work with extraordinary briskness, acquiring the best texts (some of them hired from the MLA) and putting the first volumes onto the market about a year ago, only three years after they started.

The Library is non-profit-making, but it benefits from the advice of Epstein, a very successful commercial publisher, and uses every conceivable device to strengthen its market position. Mail-order sales are handled by Time-Life; there are concessions to students, a book club, and so on. As everybody knows who has watched a fund-raising drive on a Public Broadcasting TV channel, the Americans are expected to put their hands in their pockets for culture as well as everything else, and at $25 their books don’t sound cheap. Yet cheap is what they in fact are, if one looks at them twice. They are beautifully printed, on fine paper – acid-free, no show-through, wide margins – and about five inches by eight inches; each volume, without being bulky, contains up to 1500 pages, and when opened stays open. There is no introductory matter, and the few notes are all about essential textual and bibliographical matters. Nothing is allowed to come between the reader and the book.

There is a Whitman which gives both the 1855 and the 1891-2 versions of Leaves of Grass, and all the prose; its claim to be more comprehensive than any other one-volume Whitman is exactly true. There will be four volumes of Hawthorne, the first of which has the tales and sketches in 1500 pages. Melville also fills four volumes, and the first, a testimony to scholarly sobriety, includes not Moby-Dick but Typee, Omoo and Mardi. Harriet Beecher Stowe gets three volumes, Howells four; there is a Jack London volume out, and one to come. Parkman’s two volumes will appear in the autumn, along with the collected works of Jefferson in one volume, one of four Henry Adams volumes, and one of four Emersons. James will fill eight volumes, and the first, soon to appear, includes Watch and Ward and four other early works. His critical writing will occupy two volumes, which will be not the least of the benefits offered by this series.

All titles are to be kept in print, and the project will continue indefinitely, reaching back into the 17th century and forward to our time, though there will doubtless be a continuing complaint that Messrs Aaron and Poirier have no business to constitute themselves arbiters of the canon of American literature. They mean to ignore the complaint, and plan to include, among many others, George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, Dreiser, O’Neill and Faulkner; and to introduce the philosophers William James and C.S. Peirce, who is particularly inaccessible. They aren’t looking for limits. Why should they? After one year, or so I learn from the Publishers’ Weekly, sales are so good that the project is well on the way to becoming self-sustaining, and that in all but one exceptional case they badly underestimated the print-runs of the early volumes. They already have designs on the heritage of American painting.

I suppose the normal British reaction to all this would be to point out that it’s nice to gamble with two million dollars of foundation money: you might make a success of it and if you don’t nobody suffers. Some years ago I discussed the possibility of an English Pléiade with the publisher of an English university press: he produced some specimens and a costing, which made the whole project seem absolutely hopeless. And of course it might be argued that our need is less. But the value of this Americna experiment for us lies in the hint it gives of feasibility. If it can be done, the argument as to whether it needs doing becomes more urgent.

On the face of it, one can much more readily raise this kind of money (well over one million pounds at present exchange rates) in the US than here. But I remember that a dozen or so years ago, when I was chairman of the Arts Council Literature Panel, there was an understanding, never strictly formulated, that the Literature Department should have about 1 per cent of the total grant. It may be that no one, except possibly the Director, now remembers this rule of thumb, but he might remind his colleagues that it would now give him something like two million pounds a year; and a British Pléiade would give him something to spend it on – say, in five doles of £400,000.

At this point one has a vision of all the committees that would have to decide whether the project was desirable, whether it conflicted with legitimate publishing interests, whether the public wanted it, and so forth. And one would have to be ready to face criticism when X, Y and Z were put in charge of this pseudo-canon of British literature. But the presumption that the thing could be done is at least not wholly unreasonable. And if we wanted to try we should have the example and the experience not only of Gallimard but of the Americans to go on.

As to whether the nation would want the books, or could be induced by any reasonable means to collect them, the American experience isn’t, I suppose, a good guide. I asked Richard Poirier how he accounted for the extraordinary public response to the project. He put it down to patriotism. More Americans than anybody expected decided they should have the documents of the national culture, thus handsomely arrayed, in their houses. Perhaps the books help to justify that pride in being American which Americans so often assert that we tend to think of it as a slightly embarrassing routine. And of course they are much less ashamed than we are of using the word ’culture’ to mean a separate department of life, segregated, for example, on one TV channel – a view we might deplore as suggesting the merely decorative. Perhaps, moreover, many of these beautiful volumes will never be read, or even opened. Still, it is better that they exist than that they should have remained a dream of Edmund Wilson’s; and it would be better if our Pléiade existed, too, though with us patriotism, rarely invoked in normal times, is unlikely to prove the last refuge of the publisher, or even of disinterested entrepreneurs like Messrs Aaron and Poirier. It must be held unlikely that we shall ever see a British Pléiade. But at a time when talk about the commercial prospects of literature is invariably accompanied by so much breast-beating, it seems reasonable to applaud, and natural to envy, the success of the Library of America.

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