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.