In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I take a look at the Library of America, and speculate on how some (if not all) of its recent volumes reflect a growing trend in American culture. Here’s an excerpt.
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Virgil Thomson’s “Music Chronicles 1940-1954,” one of the latest titles from the Library of America, is an indispensable collection, perfectly edited by Tim Page, of the journalistic writings of the most important American music critic of the 20th century. Thomson was one of the few members of his much-maligned profession to have also had success as a creative artist, though his brilliantly witty reviews were, if anything, even more consequential than his musical compositions….
The Library of America, it seems, is on a roll. In September, for instance, it brought out a long-overdue omnibus edition of “Happy Days,” “Newspaper Days” and “Heathen Days,” H.L. Mencken’s three volumes of autobiographical essays, and it has just published “Art in America 1945-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expression, Pop Art and Minimalism,” an immaculately well-chosen anthology put together by Jed Perl. All three volumes live up to the mission statement printed on their dust jackets, in which the LOA declares itself to be “dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing.”
That’s why I’ve boggled at certain other authors who have received the Library of America imprimatur in recent years. First it was Philip K. Dick, a science-fiction writer of moderate renown (he wrote the novel on which the film “Blade Runner” was based) who specialized in paranoid fantasies about parallel universes. Then came Kurt Vonnegut, author of the best-selling “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was beloved of baby-boom sophomores who fancied themselves countercultural but is not, so far as I know, taken very seriously by anyone else nowadays. Most recently, the popular crime novelist Elmore Leonard got the nod.
Not being privy to the decision-making processes of the LOA’s executives, I can’t say what they were thinking when they implicitly declared the aforementioned gentlemen to be worthy of the company of (to pick at random) Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Henry James, Herman Melville, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth and Thornton Wilder, all of whom figure prominently on their backlist. II think it likely, however, that multiple factors were in play, among them the desire to keep up with the current literary fashion for “inclusivity” and a healthy respect for the bottom line. (The LOA brags in its latest mailing that one of its three Vonnegut volumes was the best-selling title on its backlist last year.) All of which makes you wonder who else might be under consideration these days. Woody Allen? Stephen King? Mickey Spillane?
On the other hand, the inclusion of Messrs. Dick, Leonard and Vonnegut is surely as reflective of the same cultural sea change that is no less clearly evident in the evolution—or, rather, devolution—of the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1978, the first five recipients of that once-prestigious award were Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein. This year’s honorees will be Al Green, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin and Sting, with the peerless ballerina Patricia McBride thrown in to humor the highbrows….
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Read the whole thing here.