What they and their colleagues have produced is the most complete overhaul of the oeuvre of this 17th-century English poet, playwright and essayist since Sir Walter Scott produced a complete edition in 1808. The 20-volume UC Press set presents a definitive version of each of Dryden's works, followed by commentary and footnotes that detail significant variations in editions published before 1700.
"It's a purely scholarly affair, but it's been bought by probably every major library in the world," said Geneva Phillips, the project's now-retired managing editor. One indication of Dryden's loyal following: About a third of the press run for the last volume was spoken for six months prior to publication, according to press officials.
The completion of the project, headquartered at UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, comes none too soon. Producing the definitive Dryden has taken almost as long as it took the author to write and publish his own works. Today only one member of the Dryden team — Jeanette Gilkison, now the English Department's office supervisor — remains on UCLA's payroll. The two UCLA professors who launched the project in 1949, Edward Niles Hooker and H.T. Swedenberg Jr., are deceased.
And Dryden's name is virtually unknown to the general public. Named Poet Laureate of England in 1670, he is familiar today only to English majors and scholars. But at the time of his death in 1700, Dryden was the most famous English writer of his generation.
Dryden's best known work is the satirical poem "Absalom and Achitophel," but "All for Love," a play based on Mark Antony and Cleopatra, is considered to be his masterpiece, rivaling Shakespeare's own play, some say.
Dryden's most lasting imprint, however, is in the realm of prose. While writers of his day felt formal English should be more like Latin prose, with verbs at the end of clauses and sentences, Dryden persuaded them that writing should be like talking, with the subject coming first, followed by verb and object.
"He was the foremost poet, dramatist and writer of prose of his day. He was tremendously versatile," said Vinton Dearing, a professor emeritus of English, who joined the project in 1949 when he was 28 years old and went on to become editor-in-chief. Dearing said he never suspected then that the project would "take on a life of its own."
The project's 18 scholars — half of them from UCLA — spent five decades searching for Dryden's ultimate intentions in hundreds of editions of his works. They not only corrected printers' errors and incorporated changes Dryden later made himself, but also tried to read all the books that he would have read in order to better understand his era and explain his language, style, techniques and allusions.
"We wanted the collection to reflect what Dryden would want us to read if he could look over our shoulders," Dearing said. "I'm really satisfied with the results. Everything was done very carefully by first-rate thinkers all along the line."