Hand-drawn image of trees and small buildings in the mountains.

What Makes a Classic?

By Richard Carlin Date: April 07, 2022 Tags: SUNY Press Team, SUNY Press Editors, Excelsior Editions

Richard Carlin is a Senior Acquisitions Editor with SUNY Press

The Empire State Building—Niagara Falls—West Point—The Erie Canal … New York State is the home of innumerable classic places, drawing millions of visitors from around the world. But there are other classics from the state that are hidden in the stacks of libraries and archives that deserve their own fame as well. SUNY Press has undertaken a new series, New York Classics, to explore this rich vein of material, from the beloved works of New York authors to county histories that are essential resources for family historians, to colorful guidebooks and collections that reflect the rich diversity of New York's cultural heritage.

It may seem odd in this era of massive digital libraries to be issuing new print and eBook versions of these works. But in fact the series does more than just reprint these classic works. Each volume includes a new introduction written by a major scholar who helps contextualize its contents, placing it within the literary history of their day. Many include new material, including new illustrations and maps. And some go beyond being reprints to collect the best material by an author from several different sources. For each volume, the reader is asked to take a fresh look at the material and to recognize its continuing relevance. 

New York has been a center of bookmaking since its earliest days, attracting everyone from journeymen printers and publishing tycoons to ink-stained journalists and high-flown poets. New York's landscape has inspired its own literature—think of John Burrough's evocative portraits of life in the Catskills or W.H.H. Murray's celebrations of life in the Adirondacks (forthcoming late 2022). Authors have used the state's unique geography as the backdrop for everything from odes to the natural world to tales of murder and intrigue. New York has its own pace reflected in its native, vernacular language. Readers will be delighted and surprised to see that—even though some of these works were created a century or more ago—they speak to us in words that sound remarkably contemporary.

New York's writers are a diverse crowd and New York Classics reflects this diversity. Elizabeth C. Wright—the author of Lichen Tuftswas a woman ahead of her time: a professional scientist, teacher, lecturer, and activist for gender and racial equality and social justice; an independent and intellectual woman who did not follow the expected path for a woman to marry young, raise a family, and devote herself to a domestic life. From Western New York, she created a classic work that combines poetry and diary-like prose pieces that celebrate her unique relation with the natural world. Her dreamy prose stands in stark contrast to the hard-edged writing of acerbic critic Andrew Carpenter Wheeler, best known by his pen name Nym Crinkle, a 19th-century American newspaper writer, author, and drama critic. His The Tolec Cup—set in the antebellum world of New York City—gives a rich portrait of a world that was already fading into the past during his own time.  

Our authors are not only known as literary figures—some are famous for their careers in other fields. Theodore Roosevelt (book forthcoming in Spring 2023) was among the many public figures who had an equally important impact on society through his writings as through his political acts. His history of New York City was a labor of love, written in 1891 long before he became New York City's police commissioner or the state's governor, helped establish him as one of the leading chroniclers of his day. And, just as he traced the history of the city back over 150 years, his own thoughts on the life of the city of his day have become important documents for us to understand how the city has changed over the next century.

These and many more New York voices are celebrated by SUNY Press in our new series. We hope that through these publications readers will better understand the great diversity of voices that have made the state great. And we hope these classic works continue to amaze and inspire new writings reflecting New York's rich cultural heritage.

Richard Carlin is the author of many books on popular and country music, including Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race (Oxford U. Press, 2020, with Ken Bloom) and a Senior Acquisitions Editor at SUNY Press acquiring books in education, Excelsior Editions, music, New York/regional studies, and textbooks (humanities and social sciences only).