Circle the Wagons

CONQUERING men and indomitable women caught in a crossfire of desire, danger and dreams on America's rawest frontier." Does that sound like your cup of java? If so, you probably already know about the paperback series published by Bantam called Wagons West. The 16th book in the series Louisiana!, has recently seen the light of day, and the 17th, Tennessee!, will be out in May, and the 18th, Illinois!, will be at your supermarket in October. With 21 million copies already sold in the series, Bantam has an enormous hit on its hands, and no state, municipal corporation, hamlet or neighborhood is safe from invasion.

The whole thing started in the late '70s with the proposal to Bantam for a four-book series. The idea was to trace the first fictional wagon train from its origin in New York until its arrival on the shores of the Pacific. The first volume, Independence! ended in Independence, Missouri, the launching pad for wagons headed west. The other volumes were to be Nebraska!, Wyoming!, and Oregon! By the time the third one appeared, Bantam and the company that thought up the idea, Book Creations, realized they had a winner, so Texas!, California!, Colorado! and others followed immediately, as night the day. The tradition was also solidified that all Wagons West titles include an exclamation point.

By and large, the heroes and heroines of the newer books are descendants of those hardy pioneers aboard that original wagon train. In Louisiana!, a second generation is hard at work being courageous and indomitable. Villains, on the other hand, don't tend to reproduce. Speaking of sex, the books are almost squeaky clean. "They started off PG," says Stuart Appelbaum, Bantam vice president for publicity. "Now they're PG-13. Ladies of dubious virtue appear, but there is never anything explicit. It's family entertainment."

The company behind the series, Book Creations, is fascinating in itself. Begun in 1973 by Lyle Kenyon Engel and his son George, it is headquartered in the little upstate New York town of Canaan, where it employs a staff of 18, including six fulltime editors. Book Creations "productions" have now sold over 100 billion copies. The writers live all over the United States and sometimes abroad, and the people at Caanan have never met some of their best-selling authors.

Book Creations starts the editorial process with a one-to 50-page outline of a series or book. Most of its writers are laboring in other vineyards as well, and thus use pseudonyms, which is the case with Wagons West author Dana Fuller Ross. In fact, the only Books Creations authors who use their real names are Roberta Gellis, a writer of historical romances, and John Jakes, who did the Kent Chronicles series for Book Creations. Jakes is now writing on his own.

"We prefer that each name we use has only one writer behind it," says George Engel. "It makes for more consistency. But sometimes writers don't want to do the series any more, or go dry, or die, and someone else has to take over the name." It's good to know that when Silver Spring! is published in 2033 and Georgetown! in 2114, Dana Fuller Ross will still be driving the lead wagon. The Adams Family

ONE OF THE major scholarly book projects currently under way is the publication of the papers of the Adams family, the writing-est crowd of public figures you ever did see. The project is headquartered at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, a heavy hitter in the manuscript world, which houses the papers of the Adams clan. The papers remained in the Adams family house in Quincy, Massachusetts, until 1902, when they were moved to the society, which came into full possession of them in 1956.

The newest productions of the editors at the society are volumes 7 and 8 of the Diary of Charles Francis Adams, which will appear in April from the Belknap Press, an arm of Harvard University Press. Belknap publishes all the Adams papers. There are a projected 30 volumes in the diaries of Charles Francis, the son of John Quincy Adams and the grandson of John Adams. Those about to be published cover the years 1836-1840, bringing him to his 33rd year, when he was doing some financial writing and was giving his first public lectures. Ahead is Charles Francis' involvement with the anti-slavery movement, his tenure in Congress and his ambassadorship to London during and immediately after the Civil War.

The new volumes cover the birth of the most famous member of the next generation, the historian Henry Adams, and will explode one myth that Henry tried to create for himself. The opening paragraphs of Chapter I of The Education of Henry Adams describe the author's birth on Beacon Hill and his christening "by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism." Then, in one of the more pompously portentous passages in all of American literature, Henry, in his third-person manner, goes on to intone: "Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple, and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded."

Why Hank, you old faker. The new volumes of your father's diary establish that you were born in Quincy and were baptized by the local nobody. Imagine Henry Adams trying to puff up his own lineage. It will be interesting to see what the critics make of this.

Meanwhile, back at the Adams archives, volumes 7 and 8 of Papers of John Adams will be appearing in 1987. They bring John Adams only to the year 1780 with his vice- presidency and presidency still to come. (These writings do not include the Legal Papers of John Adams, which were published in 1965 in a paltry three volumes.) Over in the John Quincy Adams wing of the factory, production is just beginning to crank up. The first two volumes of Diary of John Quincy Adams have recently been published, bringing the sixth president to 1788 and his graduation from Harvard. That diary is projected to come in at 30 volumes.

As is proper and fitting, the women of the Adams family -- deft wielders of the quill themselves -- are not ignored in the rain of words. Four volumes of family correspondence, including a lot from wives and daughters, were published by Belknap in 1973, bringing the gang up to 1782. Richard Ryerson, editor-in-chief of the Adams papers, who oversees a staff of five editors in Boston, is working on the next two volumes in that series, which will appear in about five years.

Of all the big scholarly book projects afoot in the United States, the Adams papers is perhaps the best-known to the public. It was launched in 1961 with the publication of Diary and Autobiography of John Adams in four volumes, which was excerpted in Life magazine and feted at a publication luncheon in Washington addressed by President Kennedy. A little snag developed afterwards, though. The diary was thought to be complete. However, early, unpublished chapters were subsequently found and had to be published in a small fifth volume. It seems that Royall Tyler, the jurist and playwright, had been courting one of John Adams' daughters and had apparently taken home the early chapters to read. They turned up in the Tyler papers in the Vermont Historical Society's library and were published in 1966.

When finished, the Adams papers are expected to total a hundred volumes. The editors have made an arbitrary cut-off of 1889 for the papers, the year that the widow of Charles Francis died. Thirty volumes have already been published. Although associate editor Celeste Walker thinks things will be speeding up a bit in the future because of computerized typesetting, the length of gestation for a volume is about the same as that for a human being, nine months. That would bring the completion of the task to about year 2040. If anyone is around at the time, drop them a note up in Boston and say "well done." In the Margin

ST. MARTIN'S Press and the Private Eye Writers of America have set up a contest for a first private-eye novel. It is open to anyone who has never published a private-eye novel and who is not under contract to do so. The winner will receive a guaranteed advance of $10,000 and publication of the novel by St. Martin's in the United States and Macmillan in England. Deadline is Aug. 1. Send manuscripts to the Contest at P.O. Box 1930, Longwood, Fla. . . Lorimar, the television mini-series production company that brought you Christopher Columbus and Lace as well as the recent Blood and Orchids, has taken an option on Anthony Lukas' Common Ground, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction. Lorimar's two-part miniseries of Dominick Dunne's novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles will air in November. . . I am rereading Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and finding it most amusing. This led me to think that it has been 13 years since Gravity's Rainbow and that no new novel has appeared since then. What's this mysterious fellow up to? I called Melanie Jackson, Pynchon's agent in New York, and asked what was happening. "I get calls like this every now and then," she said. "There's absolutely no news. None at all."