On this New Year’s Eve as in others past, people around the world will once again hear the age-old exhortation to ring out the old and ring in the new. It’s a nice sentiment that somehow, to serious readers, doesn’t quite make sense.
We readers like novelty as much as anyone else, which is why book catalogs announcing the next season’s line of titles always fill me with the same sense of glee as a gardener glancing a seed packet. Here it is, the last day of December, and I’m already thinking about David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers,” not due out until May. I think a lot about books not yet published, and the smell of a new volume, the pages still redolent of fresh ink, is more intoxicating than champagne for me.
But for several years now, in addition to the work I do in reviewing new books, I’ve had another enjoyable sideline as a frequent contributor to Humanities magazine, published by the National Endowment for the Humanities. For Humanities, I write profiles of classic authors, assignments that require me to immerse myself in period literature. That might sound dryly historical, like poking around in the family attic, but connecting with celebrated authors of the past has reminded me that these writers endure precisely because they can reach across generations and say something as urgently topical as this morning’s headlines.
That’s why experienced readers know that the choice between old and new authors is a false one. No need for us to ring out the old to make way for the new; we can enjoy our Jane Austen and our Jane Smiley, our Stephen Crane and our Stephen King.
Here are five vintage authors I’ve chronicled for Humanities who’d make rewarding reading in 2015. They’re each featured in attractive, definitive editions of their work published by The Library of America. Ring in the old!
1) H.L. Mencken. Mencken’s caustic journalism helped define the Jazz Age, but in the 1930s and 1940s, he mellowed a bit, publishing three well-received memoirs of his childhood and early manhood in his native Baltimore near the dawn of the 20th century. Published as “Days Revisited” this year by LOA, they’re a treat from start to finish.
2) Washington Irving. Irving is best known as the man who wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but this Eastern dandy also went West later in his life, chronicling his adventures in “A Tour on the Prairies.” It’s bracing, sometimes funny stuff, the record of an early city slicker on the American frontier.
3) Robert Frost. Frost abides as a national icon on the strength of poems such as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Mending Wall.” But an LOA edition of his letters and prose contains some lively, lesser-known stuff, including his proposed curriculum for the high school where he taught during his early career. Frost’s lesson plans included “Treasure Island” and Tennyson. “The general aim of the course in English,” Frost said, “is twofold: to bring our students under the influence of the great books, and to teach them the satisfaction of superior speech."
4 ) Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s essays can seem lofty, elevated, a bit remote. But a two-volume LOA edition of his journals reveals a more intimate, playfully human voice. That LOA project, published in 2010, is attracting new fans to Emerson’s prose.
5) James Agee. Agee’s place in posterity rests on a poignant novel, “A Death in the Family,” and his contemplation of Depression-era Alabama sharecroppers, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” But Agee was also a gifted film critic, helping to establish film criticism as a literary form. The best of his film pieces, along with assorted reportage, is in the LOA’s “James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism.”