The Fruits of the MLA: I. “Their Wedding Journey”

Their Wedding Journey

by William Dean Howells, edited by John K. Reeves
University of Indiana (Center for Editions of American Authors), 276 pp., $10.00

The New York Review of January 18, 1967, contained an article by Mr. Lewis Mumford called “Emerson Behind Barbed Wire,” in which he reviewed The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by five scholars and published by the Harvard University Press. Mr. Mumford attacked this edition on the ground that it included too much material which Emerson had wanted destroyed and that it presented this material in a totally unreadable text, the editor of which, by resorting to twenty diacritical marks, had made it look like something between an undecoded Morse-code message and a cuneiform inscription.

I applauded this article in a letter in which I criticized the prevailing practice of the Modern Language Association in reprinting the American classics and explained that I myself had had a project for publishing the American classics in an easily accessible form such as that of the French Pléiade series; and that I had at one time persuaded a number of people, publishers, writers, and foundation administrators—some of them themselves members of the Council of the National Endowment of the Humanities—of the important place which such a collection could fill, in view of the fact that the complete works of so many of the American writers who are at present most talked about and taught are unavailable to the ordinary reader. In order to make my position clear, I am printing the letter that I sent to Mr. Jason Epstein of Random House, which was sent to the persons mentioned above.

August 18, 1962

Dear Jason:

I am glad to hear that you are going to take up with the Bollingen Foundation the possibility of bringing out in a complete and compact from the principal American classics. I have, as you know, been trying for years to interest some publisher in this project. It is absurd that our most read and studied writers should not be available in their entirety in any convenient form. For example, the only collected edition of Melville was published in England in the twenties and has long been out of print; and there is not, and has never been, of Henry James and Henry Adams any complete collected edition at all. The only serious attempt, on any large scale, to do reliable editions of our classics was the publication by Houghton, Mifflin of such New England writers as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, and these are now out of print. For years there was no scholarly edition of Poe which even aimed at accuracy and completeness except that by James A. Harrison of University of Virginia, also long out of print—though I understand that Mabbott of Columbia is about to bring out a new one through the Harvard University Press. The collected Stephen Crane was published by Knopf in a limited edition which can only be found in large libraries.

The kind of thing I should like to see would follow the example of the Editions de la Pléiade, which have included so …

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Letters

Reforming the MLA December 19, 1968