Kudos for American classics; Mississippi Writings, by Mark Twain. Edited by Guy Cardwell. Library of America (dist. by Viking Press.) 1,084 pp. $25. Novels 1875-1886, by William Dean Howells. Edited by Edwin H. Cady. 1,217 pp. Novels and Stories, by Jack London. Edited by Donald Pizer. 1,020 pp. $25. Novels and Social Writings, by Jack London. Edited by Donald Pizer. 1,192 pp.
Since the publication last spring of the Library of America's first four volumes (by Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, and Stowe), the critics' approval has been unanimous.
Each volume so far contains several of a single author's complete works and runs to a thousand pages or more. Additional material is limited to Chronology, Notes on the Texts, and minimal explanatory notes. The books are unpretentiously beautiful - designed, printed, and bound as if for collectors, though in fact they're ideal for family purchase.
The current series easily matches the quality of its predecessor. For here we have both familiar classics and forgotten treasures. There is at least one title that's a natural for Christmas gift-giving.
That would be Mark Twain's ''Mississippi Writings,'' which just might be one of the 10 books I would tote along to a desert island. ''The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'' (1876) still seems to me as engrossing and delightful as it did when I first read it 35 years ago. The nonfiction ''Life on the Mississippi'' (1883) clearly retains its classic status as an encyclopedic picture of American life, as well as a wondrous repository of tall tales.
Less idyllic than ''Tom Sawyer,'' ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' ( 1884), that archetypal journey novel, has lost none of its moral force and incomparable richness of detail. Finally, there is ''Pudd'nhead Wilson'' (1894), a melodramatic tale of miscegenation and its consequences, set in the framework of a murder mystery, which is still surprisingly fresh and readable. This volume is the first of a projected six devoted to Mark Twain's writings.
There's likely to be less general interest in the William Dean Howells volume (the first of four) - though any excuse for rediscovering this conscientious realist and champion of literary causes is surely a good one. It's unfortunate that much of Howells's work has dated so badly, possibly because the territories he covered were later appropriated by such immortals as Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser. Of the four novels included here, two have weathered the years. ''Indian Summer'' (1886), Howells's finest study of American near-innocents abroad, remains a charming comedy that really does rival James. And ''The Rise of Silas Lapham'' (1885), his examination of moral crisis and choice among simple working-people suddenly become nouveaux riches, is an honestly moving book even in the harsher light of contemporary attitudes.
The most challenging of the current offerings is the two-volume edition of Jack London. This incredibly prolific writer, who died at age 40, bequeathed monstrous problems to his admirers and editors. His work is staggeringly uneven, embracing both uniquely powerful naturalistic fiction and impossible pseudo-philosophical nonsense. Textual consistency is hard to establish, owing to substantial ''differences between the first periodical and book versions'' of many of his works. And his writing abounds with localisms and forgotten topical material, making fairly extensive annotation virtually a necessity.
One volume includes the ''Klondike'' novels, ''The Call of the Wild'' (1903), and ''White Fang'' (1906); that adventure-story allegory of civilization vs. primitivism ''The Sea Wolf'' (1904); and 25 short stories. The other collects London's autobiographical and theoretical (or, if you will, thesis-ridden) writings. No one would call all of this classic literature; but, taken together, it does present an invaluable image of a most interesting writer.