EDMUND WILSON, who in the 1960s lost a battle against the Modern Language Association for federal funding of a program to publish authoritative editions of the works of classic American authors, seems now to have won the war. With the appearance a decade after Wilson's death of the first four volumes of The Library of America, the fulfillment of Wilson's dream is within reach: the publication of sturdily bound, reasonably priced volumes that will keep the core works of American literature in print and make them available to as large an audience as cares to read them.

During the '60s and '70s, the stewardship of our literary heritage fell by fiat of the federal treasury to an organization called the Center for Editions of American Authors, a creation of the Modern Language Association. Serving the interests of academics considerably more than those of readers, the CEAA poured funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources into the compilation of texts "approved" by the MLA for their fidelity, as the MLA saw it, to the authors' original intentions. Wilson, suffering from a severe case of sour grapes, took after the program in a couple of devastating articles published a dozen years ago in The New York Review of Books under the title, "The Fruits of the MLA." Whatever the motives for his attack, he argued conclusively that the CEAA editions were priced far beyond the means of the ordinary reader for whom he believed such a series should be edited, and that the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in efforts to determine the exact position of a comma or semicolon was, to put it mildly, a bizarre waste of limited resources. Wilson may have overstated the case, as he was wont to do in his more splenetic moments, but the essential soundness of his attack on the academic logrolling of the CEAA was indisputable.

A characteristic production of the CEAA is the 1975 edition of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, edited by Fredson Bowers and published by The University Press of Virginia; I have selected it from my shelves at random, with absolutely no desire to single out its distinguished editor and publisher for unfair criticism. This book, which retails for $17.50 and is virtually impossible to locate in a bookstore for the general trade, contains 85 pages of introductory material and 424 pages of text, of which only 135 pages are the actual novel. The rest of the volume is devoted to a "History and Analysis" of the manuscript followed by nearly 200 pages of appendixes devoted to such arcana as "Word Division," "Historical Collation" and "Alterations in the Manuscript."

The CEAA was a gold mine for the departments of English and their various satellite enterprises, but it showed scant interest in the reader for whom (and with whose taxes) the program was ostensibly undertaken. But now comes The Library of America to fill the void that the CEAA left when, a few years ago, it became the smaller and less ambitious Center for Scholarly Editions. With what are described as "starting grants" from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, this nonprofit publishing program makes its bow this month to considerable and greatly deserved fanfare. The Library is designed to meet the needs of readers, and if there is any justice it will be given sufficient popular support to be able to do so. In many instances--including the Melville and Hawthorne volumes in this initial batch of books--the Library will use the texts assembled by the CEAA; but its distribution system is certain to make them available to a vastly wider audience than the CEAA could ever have hoped to reach.

Of the books themselves, it would be presumptuous to attempt to "review" works that are so deeply rooted in our literature and culture and that have accumulated vast critical literature. Suffice it to say that the Whitman and Hawthorne are almost certain to be regarded as definitive volumes, containing as they do collections of the works of both authors that are unmatched for comprehensiveness. Some readers will find it curious that the Library's directors have chosen to begin its Melville project (which will run to four volumes) with a volume containing the three South Seas romances known primarily to crossword-puzzle fans; others will wonder, as I do, why the Library has chosen to afford such prominence to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose importance is largely historical rather than literary, by including her in the first four selections. But these are comments, not objections; the Library is in business over the long haul, and it clearly--not to mention properly--has no desire to squander its resources by publishing all of its most famous titles at the outset. The balance between notable collections of Whitman and Hawthorne and more obscure ones of Melville and Stowe doubtless was struck with care, and is attractive.

The books are every bit as handsome as promised, and should be long-lived as well. They weigh only a couple of pounds apiece, which is remarkable considering the number of pages they contain. The type (Galliard) is clear and appealing, and the acid-free paper is at once thin enough to keep the books to manageable size and sturdy enough to survive the years. The bindings are sewn and the covers are of moderately flexible cloth. Each volume has a sewn-in ribbon place-marker. The uniform dust wrappers are made of slick, heavy paper.

The Library is a collaborative venture that has received broad support within the literary, scholarly and publishing communities. Its "Board of Advisers" is an impressive group, the diverse character of which emphasizes the Library's desire to find a wide audience. Trade distribution of the Library has been undertaken by the Viking Press and subscriptions are available through Time-Life Books.

This fall the next four volumes will appear: the first of six by Mark Twain, the first of four by William Dean Howells, two by Jack London. Other authors whose work will join the series in 1983 and 1984 are Francis Parkman, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. In the future, we are promised, are William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway--and many others as yet to be determined. The Library aims to be authoritative, democratic and inclusive.

Probably it will be a decade, assuming the series prospers and grows at a steady rate of eight volumes a year, before we have sufficient perspective on The Library of America to determine whether it has in fact met Edmund Wilson's prescription for a lasting, accessible collection of the country's most durable and important writing. But there can be no question that its beginning is wholly promising and, to anyone who loves our national literature, enormously exciting. It is long overdue, but all the more welcome for the wait.