The Library of America has been publishing its wonderfully bountiful take on what constitutes this country's literary heritage since 1982. Perusing its list of titles is like crashing a time-travelers' party where Thomas Jefferson is pouring wine for Ring Lardner and Susan Sontag is whispering in Frederick Douglass' ear.
The books are beautiful, if a bit austere, produced on acid-free paper with sewn bindings. They, like the works they contain, are meant to last.
Over the past few years, the Library of America has been adding the works of Kurt Vonnegut to its collection. A first volume focused on novels and stories published between 1950 and 1962, before, in other words, Vonnegut was VONNEGUT; then came a selection including what many consider to be Vonnegut's name-making trifecta: Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions.
A new edition has just arrived. As expected, it picks up where the last edition left off, containing a quartet of novels (Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, and Galapagos) published between 1976 and 1985 by an artist who had become one of the most widely read authors in the world.
This was not an easy period for Vonnegut. While his popularity with readers remained prodigious, the critical response to these books, written when he was assumed to be at the height of his powers, was mixed, at best - and, to a great extent, remains so.
That makes for a provocative collection. It's an invitation to revisit and reassess a crucial portion of Vonnegut's career.
But in doing so, a reader is first challenged by Vonnegut's highly idiosyncratic, if not downright avant-garde, understanding of what a novel might be. His is not a literature of psychology, in which one is immersed in the simulation of another person's point of view. Like Warhol or Lichtenstein in the visual arts, Vonnegut presents us with an array of surfaces, juxtapositions and incisively sketched bits of behavioral gesture as a way of diagramming the systems through which we all must travel.
These diagrams can, at times, feel so packed with the author's need to get everything he's thinking in that what passes for narrative arc seems misshapen, like a suitcase that's too small for its trip.
But they are enlivened by the author's extraordinarily plain-spoken, confiding voice. Vonnegut would say elsewhere that, at a certain point in his career, he realized people wanted to hear him, Kurt himself, in his prose. This was his breakthrough in Slaughterhouse-Five and, in each of the books in this latest volume, we find him figuring out new ways of using that voice to satirize and self-examine.
The Library of America's latest Vonnegut volume closes with a sequence of brief nonfiction appendices featuring public speeches and excerpts from essays. For my money, it's here, where Vonnegut is no longer tasked with trying to find narrative contrivances to carry his ideas, but is simply free to write about life as he knows it, that his mastery is undeniable. Though Vonnegut considered himself a novelist first, it was the originality of his thought - matched by the freshwater clarity of his prose - that makes his literary legacy so vital.
I hope the Library of America adds a book packed with this stuff to its list; an American library won't be complete without it.