Writers Behind Barbed Wire

In response to:

Emerson Behind Barbed Wire from the January 18, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I congratulate Lewis Mumford and The New York Review on his article in your issue of January 18 on the new edition of the Emerson papers. The editing of the classical American writers has got to be an academic racket that is coming between these writers and the public to which they ought to be accessible. I have for a long time had the project of getting out the American classics in a series similar to the Pléiade editions published by Gallimard in France: complete works of the important authors, selections from the less important, well but not pretentiously edited, well printed on thin paper and not impossibly priced. The Pléiade series has got the whole of the Comédie Humaine into ten volumes—the whole of Henry James could probably be contained in less—Saint-Simon in seven volumes, and the whole of Montaigne in one. The three volume Pléiade edition of Proust is the only complete and accurate one of A La Recherche that has ever been published. We have in print no such editions of Poe or Melville or James. What we get are, on the one hand, odd reprints of various works of these writers and, on the other, pedantic and expensive editions—such as the Ohio State edition of Hawthorne—published at long intervals, a volume or two at a time, by the University Presses. I was given not long ago to understand that a sum of money had been allotted for my project by the National Endowment for the Humanities. My supporters and I were all ready to go into action. But then I was told that the project had been “tabled” for reasons that were not explained, and that the Modern Language Association had somehow succeeded in having this money assigned to themselves. The next news of this that I had was that more of these stupid academic editions were being got under way. I was asked to do an introduction for one volume of George W. Cable, of whose work, good as he is at his best, there are only half a dozen titles that deserve to be widely read, and these books, since they are mostly short, could be included in one Pléiade volume. There is also the grisly news that some MLA beneficiary is going to undertake a complete edition of the works of William Gilmore Simms, who seems to me one of the most unreadable and most unrewarding American writers—his work is both sloppy and voluminous—who has ever had any reputation. He ought to be left on the library shelves, where special students can always find him. This shows that these exploits are being conducted with the same lack of taste and discrimination that has come largely to dominate the academic field of American literature. The professor who edits these unnecessary works may earn academic credit and promotion in the academic hierarchy by his industry in becoming an authority on some writer who he discovers has never been edited but that few people want to read.

I am of course indignant about this; but I cannot be bothered to do anything about it. I should be very glad, however, to hear from the Modern Language Association as to how and why they accomplished this operation of waylaying the funds we were supposed to get.

Edmund Wilson

Wellfleet, Massachusetts