The Library of America, founded in the late 1970s with initial funding from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, grew out of an idea of Edmund Wilson’s that there ought to be an American equivalent of the French Pleiade editions, which seek to keep classics in circulation and reprint unjustly neglected titles and authors.
The LOA has, to some degree, realized Wilson’s vision: Here you may find the collected works of Washington Irving and William Dean Howells and Kate Chopin and Francis Parkman—all eminent in their particular way, all in the public domain, all well worth preserving for posterity. But somewhere, somehow the LOA seems to have lost it sense of mission. It is now a repository for political, rather than literary, collections (Reporting Civil Rights, Reporting Vietnam), writers whose immortality is by no means secure (Arthur Miller, Raymond Carver, Jack Kerouac), or contemporary authors whose works are, for the most part, still in print and readily available (Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Cheever). Writers who have, justly or unjustly, been neglected—Josh Billings, Mark Sullivan, John P. Marquand—don’t yet have a home in the Library of America.
This latest volume is a case in point. Galbraith (1908-2006) had a long and profitable career as an economic popularizer on the Harvard faculty, and to the extent that any American economist has approached celebrity status, Galbraith was within hailing distance. But his principal works—American Capitalism, The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State—are all very much products of their time (1950s/60s) and place (the academic center-left) and, while stylishly written with the common reader in mind, have not aged especially well. Galbraith was writing not for the ages but for the marketplace of his day, and his observations and conclusions about the American economy, free market, taxes, and consumerism are of interest today largely for antiquarian purposes.
The one exception in this collection, The Great Crash, 1929 (1954), may yet survive since it is a straightforward historical account, written when memories of the crash were still vivid, and largely devoid of the partisan tincture that tends to spoil his other productions. But is one short book on a single episode in American history worthy of the pantheon? Probably not.
The Affluent Society and Other Writings
by John Kenneth Galbraith
Library of America, 1098 pp., $40