There is a three-word response to anyone who suggests that nothing good has happened in the last few decades: Library of America.
This series of beautifully bound volumes has helped preserve and promote the literature of the past, a kind of modern-day Harvard Classics with covers even more austere than the 50 volumes (plus one of lectures and commentary) assembled a century ago by Harvard University president Charles William Eliot. Only a few in the modern series (the four volumes of Philip K. Dick come to mind) abandon the focus on the past and point to the future. So that is why its latest offering is such a refreshing break with form, offering a literature of a different sort, one intricately entwined with the nation’s focus on the future.
The title “Into the Blue’’ is a rare Library of America flight into the evocative, but the selection of works, artfully chosen by cultural historian Joseph J. Corn (who taught at Stanford University), takes us on a flight of our own, inside and beyond the atmosphere, propelling us through time and space just as Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn did.
In this weighty volume are many selections a reader might expect: a dash of Eddie Rickenbacker, a pinch of Lindbergh, a shot of Glenn, a bit of Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, and, of course, a right-stuff dollop of Tom Wolfe.
But Corn also provides us with unexpected pleasures that offer fresh looks at some of the giants of American letters we thought we knew. Here is Ida M. Tarbell, known for raking the muck, soaring in the skies and, nine years after her takedown of Standard Oil, riding in a flying machine and concluding, “Flying is an accomplished thing. You will fly one of these days, I shall fly again — I hope.’’ Here is Ernest Hemingway, who prided himself on being grounded, speaking of “the open cockpit with the bridge of the pilot’s broad nose and his sheepskin coat visible with his dirty glove moving the joystick from side to side or up and down.’’
But what will remain with the reader may be excerpts such as Chris Jones’s “Home,’’ which deals with the space-station crew whose mission was prolonged in February 2003 after the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed on reentry. “As the days pass, you can feel yourself changing,’’ he writes. “Not so much in the density of your bones or the fiber of your muscles — although those are deteriorating, you have already proved that, physically, men can last long enough to make it to Mars — but more in the wearing away of the calluses life has given you.’’ You need not be told there is a metaphor in there.
And anyone who remembers Apollo 8 and its Christmastime rendering of Genesis at the end of the miserable year of 1968 will be drawn to the reminiscences of Gene Krantz, the NASA flight chief, about a mission he did not direct: “I was enraptured, transported by the crew’s voices, finding new meaning in the words from Genesis. For those moments, I felt the presence of creation and the Creator.’’
Of course, there is the Apollo 11 moonshot. We remember those few spare words from Neil Armstrong, but it is good to be reminded of the cascade — a Niagara, really — of words from Norman Mailer, who captures the moment, or at least the launch:
“Then it came, like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furious bark of a million drops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Apollo-Saturn fifteen seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from that near-audience watching; then came the earsplitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault.’’
Mailer could go on. He did, in fact, for quite a long time.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.