Monumental new series of American classics

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Appearing this month are the first four volumes in an ambitious publishing project designed to represent the major American writers in standard editions of their most important and enduring works. The Library of America, which will eventually encompass 100 volumes or more, is published by Literary Classics of the United States and distributed to stores by the Viking Press. It is also available by subscription (One Lincoln Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10022). Certainly its first four productions augur well.

* ''Tales and Sketches by Nathaniel Hawthorne'' (edited by Roy Harvey Pearce, 1,504 pp.) contains all Hawthorne's short fiction, including the retellings of classical myths in ''A Wonder Book'' and ''Tanglewood Tales.''

* ''Typee, Omoo, Mardi'' (edited by Thomas Tanselle, 1,344 pp.), Melville's three ''Polynesian novels'' appear together.

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* ''Three Novels'' by Harriet Beecher Stowe (edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar, 1, 488 pp.) includes two lesser-known works, ''The Minister's Wooing'' and ''Oldtown Folks,'' reprinted together with her well loved ''Uncle Tom's Cabin.''

* ''Poetry and Prose'' by Walt Whitman (edited by Justin Kaplan, 1,392 pp.) includes the two very different versions of ''Leaves of Grass'' published in Whitman's lifetime, plus his ''Complete Prose Works.''

The texts of the Hawthorne and Melville volumes are those of the Centenary and Newberry editions, respectively; for Stowe and Whitman, the library's editors have used the original book editions. There is only minimal commentary: a chronology for each author, brief notes on the texts, and necessary explanatory notes. The books are quite handsomely designed and printed, on acid-free paper, with sewn bindings.

I recently discussed the Library's origins, operating procedures, and future plans with its President, Daniel Aaron, Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University. As is now generally known, it was the late Edmund Wilson who first noted the absence of authoritative complete editions of classic American writers. He viewed France's ''Pleiade editions'' of its great writers as the example America should follow.

In the early 1960s, Wilson -- in Professor Aaron's words -- ''began to agitate,'' approaching publishers, seeking support from various foundations. Progress was slow, but the small army of critics and scholars whose support Wilson had enlisted continued the effort after his death in 1972, and by the late '70s grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities had provided the financing for the first several installments in the program.

Four more volumes will appear this fall, another four next spring, and so on. It is planned that the sales of the volumes as they appear will generate revenue to help see the project through to completion -- though it is, of course, conceivable that the Library of America will go on indefinitely.

Professor Aaron hopes so. He speaks enthusiastically of the ''national effort'' which the Library of America represents. Its board of directors assigns writers and subjects to editors, with whom it then chooses each volume's contents. Two outside experts are also consulted. An overall selection committee (with a shifting membership) decides what will be published and also in what order.A textual committee decides whether to use original editions or ''lease'' the texts of collected editions being published by university presses or parallel ventures. For example, the eight volumes devoted to Henry James's works will reprint first editions, not the 1907-09 ''New York Edition,'' for which James revised his sparer, simpler stories in the more complex manner of his later fiction.

There's further cause for optimism in ''a kind of groundswell'' of public interest already evident. The Library's New York office has received some 2,000 letters of inquiry from all across the US: people want to know about these books and where they can find them. They are available in jacketed editions at bookstores at $25, or by mail-order subscription (see address above) in slipcase editions at $19.95 each. It seems that this national effort is beginning to reach a national audience. Professor Aaron points out that suggestions for writers and works to be included are welcome; they may be sent to him at Harvard's English Department (Cambridge, Mass. 02138).

The boundaries have been established clearly. For the present, the latest writers being included are Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene O'Neill, for whom the Library plans the first complete edition of his work, in three volumes. It will appear during O'Neill's centenary year, 1988. An effort will be made to include everything that has attained the status of a ''classic.'' Though there will be no ''documents,'' the literature of exploration and travel, philosophy, economics, and other disciplines will be well represented, along with classic US fiction and poetry.

Rubric volumes will combine works by several writers who produced single memorable books rather than large bodies of work. Richard Henry Dana's ''Two Years Before the Mast,'' for instance, will appear in a volume also containing several other chronicles of seafaring experience by other writers.

Professor Aaron foresees, not just that the Library of America effort will ''go on long after I'm dead,'' but that its potential as ''a cultural expression for the world outside,'' addressed to the great interest in American culture that exists in other countries, may well be unlimited.

''Compare the cost of one tank,'' he urges, to the relatively modest investment that has resulted in this ultimate presentation of the best that Americans as a people have thought and said. I hear the ghost of Edmund Wilson growling his approval. The Library of America does its country proud.

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