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Writing the Book(s) on American Literature

The 10 volumes published by Ljungquist and Mott between 1994 and 2001 cover a wide swath of American literature.

Want to know something--anything--about American literature published in the mid-19th century? Chances are, what you're looking for is somewhere in the pages of 10 reference works edited in less than seven years by Kent P. Ljungquist (left) and Wesley T. Mott, professors of English at WPI.

By Bonnie Gelbwasser

"The literary answer to an encyclopedia, these 10 volumes comprise the standard reference sources on the period for public and private libraries," Ljungquist says. Adds Mott, "Our audience includes high school students, college students and college professors, and we know that these books are standard reading for doctoral exams in American and European universities."

Mott and Ljungquist selected the more than 1,200 writers, theologians, philosophers, educators, scholars, politicians, scientists, artists and reformers to profile in the 10 volumes and handpicked the scholars (including several WPI faculty members) to write the essays. "Most important," Ljungquist says, "we provided a substantial introductory essay for each volume that synthesizes the historical and intellectual background of the period."

The professors brought impressive credentials as "Americanists" to their task. Ljungquist is one of the world's leading authorities on the life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Known for his critical analyses of Poe's writings, in 1991 he determined that an unsigned review of Poe's series on "Autography" that appeared in 1841 was, in fact, written by Poe himself. Three of his volumes were part of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) series, published by Bruccoli Clark Laymen. The publisher chose his Antebellum Writers in the South as the most distinguished DLB volume published in 2001.

Mott, an expert on Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists, is vice president of publications and a member of the editorial advisory board for the 1,800-member Thoreau Society. He is also president of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society and publisher of its WPI-based newsletter, Emerson Society Papers.

Mott and Ljungquist are part of a group within WPI's Department of Humanities and Arts that has published volumes in the standard edition of works of several 19th century giants. The group includes Joel Brattin, recognized authority on Charles Dickens, and Assistant Provost Lance Schachterle, known for his textual editing of the works of James Fenimore Cooper. "This body of work is remarkable not only for its scope, but for the fact that these works were produced by professors at a technological university," Mott says. "They have created a reputation for a certain kind of hard-nosed scholarship emanating from the English group at WPI."

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