Since its first four volumes appeared last spring, the Library of America has , with almost unseemly rapidity, made itself into something very like a national institution. Some 125,000 copies of Whitman, Twain, London, and others have been purchased, and I hear people talking about hoping to ''keep up'' with all the volumes as they're issued.
It's heartening to see such enthusiastic approval of this enterprise, which is, after all, a letter-perfect example of what we like to think of as American initiative. And it's likely that volumes nine and 10 may be met with even greater enthusiasm. For here the highlights are two of American fiction's undisputed masterpieces. Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter'' arrived in our literature as if in reply to Emerson's appeal (in his 1837 ''American Scholar'' address) for a new native literature not dependent on British models. Hawthorne's probing analysis of the Puritan temperament brought refreshing, rational skepticism to bear on an element of the American self-image long taken for granted. Herman Melville's ''Moby-Dick'' was a different kind of innovation. A vast synthesis of drama, characterization, scene-painting, and philosophy, it was the first American novel to rival the ambitious fictions of Scott and Dickens and their continental-European counterparts.
The series format remains classically simple. There are no critical forewords , or afterwords - only a brief chronology of each author's life, an essay explaining the choice of texts, and minimal textual notes. Editor Millicent Bell has provided her Hawthorne volume with an elegantly compact, informative six-page chronology, that should serve as a model for subsequent series editors. The texts are those of the Centenary Edition of Hawthorne's works, based on his original manuscripts or the books' first editions.
Hawthorne's first novel, ''Fanshawe'' (1828), will find few contemporary readers. It's a flaccid, sentimental romance about a student's intellectual agonies, frustrated romance, and early death. It's worth remembering largely for its collegiate setting, which was probably sketched from Hawthorne's memories of Bowdoin College. Hawthorne paid to have it published, and later bought up existing copies in order to destroy them.
It seems all the more amazing, therefore, that this feeble debut was followed by ''The Scarlet Letter'' (1850). Written years later - after family tragedies and burgeoning disillusionments had left their mark on Hawthorne - it is the most fully plotted and vivid of his books, and the profoundest exploration anywhere in his work of the ambiguities of sin and guilt, moral absolutism, and Christian forbearance. The characters of Hester Prynne, her ''love-child'' Pearl , the self-torturing Dimmesdale, and the vengeful Chillingworth are allegorical personae, yet also boldly dramatic flesh-and-blood figures. It's a book whose greatness has never been questioned, and it made Hawthorne's reputation.
None of his later novels comes close to matching it, though ''The House of the Seven Gables'' (1851) wrestles fairly successfully once again with the theme of Puritanical intolerance. ''The Blithedale Romance'' (1852), a thinly disguised account of Hawthorne's participation in Bronson Alcott's ''Utopian community'' at Brook Farm, is usually dismissed as the weakest of his novels, an awkward mixture of melodrama, social satire, and veiled political argument. It has, however, many amusing passages, and, in its climactic scene - the recovery of the drowned woman's body - one of Hawthorne's truly unforgettable dramatic moments.
His last novel, ''The Marble Faun'' (1860), is a moral allegory set in Italy (doubtless based on a summer Hawthorne spent in Florence) about the innocent idealist Donatello's ''education'' in sin and its consequences. Many readers have found in it intimations of Henry James's delicate studies of Americans in Europe. At the very least, ''The Marble Faun'' indicates that Hawthorne was moving beyond concentration on the Puritan conscience.
Herman Melville, so often perceived as a dark, brooding presence akin to Hawthorne, is, unlike his admired contemporary and friend, a writer both empowered and weakened by his commitment to complex themes and large casts of characters - as this edition clearly shows. It employs the texts of the Newberry Library Edition of Melville's writings. Editor G. Thomas Tanselle's Note on the Texts describes the laborious process of collating differing editions (''Moby-Dick'' alone shows 600 differences between the American and English editions) to produce a definitive text.
The books are altogether worthy of such assiduous scholarship - even if Melville himself dismissed ''Redburn'' (1850) as a potboiler, saying he ''wrote it to buy some tobacco with.'' It's the story of a naive young sailor's realization of the world's, and his own, imperfections, notable for its narrative vigor and its portrayal of the seamy underside of the port of Liverpool. It also contains several explicit foreshadowings of Melville's late masterpiece, ''Billy Budd.''
''White-Jacket'' (also 1850) is an exasperatingly uneven, yet lively tale of another young innocent's coming of age while serving on a man-of-war. The story comes with memorable characters and striking symbolic incidents. It nevertheless staggers under the weight of maritime topics and history. Its repeated condemnations of the practice of flogging ought to be its real center.
No such awkwardness mars the turbulent, complicated, brilliant surface of ''Moby-Dick'' (1851). Melville forged an enormity of technical information about the whaling industry, scattered sailors' tales about a real leviathan (Mocha Dick), and an ingenious allegory of good and evil in which both the pursuing avenger (Captain Ahab) and the object of his pursuit (the creature that had maimed him) are symbolic figures radiating both positive and negative impulses.
Few readers have forgotten this mighty book's powerful scenes and striking characters. What we may not have remembered is the novel's intricate structure: the way its virtually Shakespearean language links men and their actions and the elements together through complex patterns of metaphors; the way the narrative is arranged to rise toward, and fall away from, its great peaks of action. No one who returns to ''Moby-Dick'' will be disappointed - and readers who haven't yet encountered it are in for one of the great experiences that reading can provide.
(The entire Library of America series is also available on subscription from Time-Life Books at $19.95 each.)