The Library of America has been around for a couple of decades now. They print little blue-covered books with black paper covers, and they use onion-skin paper.
They are assembling the definitive collection of the Essential American Writers.
They started with the obvious: Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, the letters and speeches and writings of the Founding Fathers.
Then they started to think about what made someone an “American writer.”
I own their edition of George Washington, and two volumes of Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, and Wallace Stevens (everything he wrote fits in one book!), and Flannery O’Connor (ditto!), and Philip K. Dick, and one of their Thoreau volumes, and probably a couple of others I’m forgetting. We have a huge literary history in this country, and LOA is memorializing and perpetuating it in this series. Their books ain’t cheap, but they’re nice editions, and they're worth owning.
They are not perfect. In the Lincoln volumes, I would love to know what Lincoln was responding to when he wrote his letters. Even a summary of the other person’s letter would be good. But, no, they just give you Lincoln. (I have a collection of Groucho Marx’s letters – no, not from the Library of America, but they should think about reissuing it – and you get everything: not just the letters he wrote, but the letters he received. Most of the time they are just as clever as his, and you get the context too. So huh, Library of America. Get a clue.)
LOA has covered the nineteenth century pretty completely now, I think. They are doing the same with twentieth-century lit too (as you can probably tell, with Philip K. Dick included above).
They are doing a pretty damned good job of preserving our country’s literature.
They do a neat little thing online: A Story A Week. They send an email once a week, with a link to their website, and you can go read a story from one of their publications. It is invariably something I’ve never read before. Recently I read a bit of Mark Twain, and a short personal reminiscence by Dreiser, and a very odd thing by Edith Wharton, and a couple of things by people I’d never heard of.
It’s nice to be reminded that we have such a rich literary heritage.
And it only took us three hundred years to get there!