Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2011 Issue

The Library of America: Where the 19th Century Meets the 21st

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19th century poetry offered on a 21st century venue.

I have come to expect all types of goods to be advertised on the internet. Occasionally, one might even see something sort of book related, such as an electronic reader or some phenomenally popular new series. What I wasn't prepared for was the advertisement I saw recently while checking out the weather forecast. There it was – a collection of 19th century poetry, featuring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and “more.” Is there really a sufficient market for such classic literature to justify advertising on the internet? What's more, these weren't electronic versions of these texts or some other sort of 21st century technology. These were books – paper and ink, with old-fashioned hard covers.

In the days ahead, I discovered similar ads for collections of works by Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper. Who could be selling new print editions of these old classics to a mass-market audience today? The answer is... The Library of America. The Library of America is a surprising organization, a nonprofit publisher that has been operating somewhat below the radar for over three decades. It was formed in 1979 by various scholars and literary critics who were concerned about the availability of the works of America's greatest writers. Of course, those were the days before the availability of massive quantities of old books online, or electronic and online copies of books, generally offered free if published before 1923. Still, though circumstances have changed since 1979, the work of the Library of America goes on. Their role, somewhere between purveyor of text and publisher of fine editions, continues to fill the shelves of both longtime loyal followers and new clients, some of whom discovered the Library when checking out the day's weather.

The founders of the Library originally secured their funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. In 1982, their first book was published. Now, 225 titles later, the Library has an active publishing schedule set for next year. We asked Brian McCarthy, Associate Publisher of the Library of America, to tell us a bit more about the Library and its work, and how it reaches people in the second decade of the 21st century.

What makes the Library of America very different from any other publishers we have known is the multitude of roles they seek to fill. It started from a basic preservation role, that of preserving access to the great American literature of the past for today's generations. However, other roles include making this classic literature available at an affordable price, creating fine, collectible quality editions of these works, and selecting the most authoritative versions of these books to publish. Mr. McCarthy explained the multifaceted mission by noting, “From the beginning, our mission has always been about more than availability. It has been about presenting America’s best and most significant writing in the most authoritative possible texts and in a durable, affordable, aesthetically pleasing, and convenient format.” He then pointed out, “In addition, each and every item in a Library of America volume comes from the most reliable, authoritative source for that particular selection. Choosing an authoritative text involves studying the textual history of each work to determine which of its various versions is the most appropriate to reprint.”

Curating works at the Library of America is not limited to selecting the most accurate text among competing editions. It can also lead to compilations that are original works. Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1973, is a collection of articles, features, columns, and book excerpts gathered together “to present a compelling as-it-happened panorama of that turbulent era.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 18591865, published “555 letters, speeches, messages, proclamations, orders, memoranda, drafts, and fragments that together form a record of the Civil War as experienced by its most central figure.” Mr. McCarthy points out, “while a diligent researcher might locate a particular letter or speech on the Internet, there is no equivalent digital selection of Lincoln’s most essential writings from the war years.”

Purchases from the Library also reflect the varying missions behind their publishing. Mr. McCarthy explains, “Our readers use books for many reasons: as readers, as collectors, as scholars, as students. Many buy our books because they want to own a permanent collection of a favorite author; others buy our books for the quality of the bindings and their appearance in their personal libraries. Many customers might buy only one title or boxed set, but we have several thousand customers who own virtually all 225 titles in the series.”

Of those 225 titles, which were the biggest sellers? The top seller goes to Thomas Jefferson: Writings, with sales of 217,518 copies. It is followed by Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859-1865; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832-1858; and Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose. Each of these was originally published in the 1980s, but that does not imply that sales were greater years ago. These works have been available for going on three decades, so their sales totals are naturally higher than for more recently published works.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. $200,000 to 300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. $80,000 to $120,000
  • <b>Leland Little: Important Spring Auction. March 3, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Copper Printing Plate for "Marshall's Household Engraving of Washington." $500 to $1000
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Important Documentary Painting Showing Baseball Great Ty Cobb in Cuba. $1,000 to $2,000
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> <i>Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age</i>, Inscribed by Bill Wilson. $500 to $1,000
    <b>Leland Little: Important Spring Auction. March 3, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893-1983), <i>Prise à l'hameçon.</i> $3,000 to $6,000
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> Maurice Dufrène (French, 1876-1955), <i>Rayon des Soieries</i>. $400 to $800
    <b>Leland Little, Mar. 3:</b> William Pope.L (American, b. 1955), <i>Intimacy Project</i>. $2,000 to $4,000
  • <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Collection of 131 Herbert Ponting gelatin silver contact prints of Antartica, £6000-8000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> One of several lots of Henri Cartier-Bresson gelatin silver prints, £200-300
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Vintage gelatin silver print of Diego Rivera by Leonard McCombe, £300-500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron of Sir John Herschel (April, 1867), £30,000-50,000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron, Love, 1864 (from the Norman album), £1000-1500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print by Lewis Carroll of Twyford School Eleven (Summer Term, 1859), £1000-1500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print portrait by Lewis Carroll of Xie Kitchin as 'Dane' (Oxford, 1873), £500-800
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Calotype print (c1845) by Hill & Adamson of Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake, £3000-4000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Group of 12 waxed paper negatives of Scottish scenes by Thomas Keith, mid-1850s, £3000-5000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> One of 15 lots of Roger Fenton salt prints of his work in the Crimea, mid-1850s, £400-600
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Quarter plate ambrotype (c.1860s) with ethnographic portrait of a woman seated at a table, £400-600
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Rare whole plate thermoplastic union case of the Landing of Columbus (c.1858),part of the John Hannavy collection, £1500-2000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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