The Harvard Classics

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Times change, places change, people change,…only Human Nature, God, and Sin have remained unchanged over the centuries of time that man has inhabited this earth.  Great and not-so-great men and women have lived and contributed much to the development and furtherance of humankind.  History of these very same people, particularly for the major players,…the most significant contributors,…records not only their actual achievements but also the effects of their achievements on the populations of the world as a whole.  Although there are, indeed, many more such major contributors than just a select few, I will herewith mention only a handful of names for the sake of brevity.

On or around December 1910 Adeline Virginia Woolf, the famous English writer who just happened to be one of the foremost modernists of the twentieth century wrote, “human character had changed.”  Mrs. Woolf was not referring to a specific event… so much as she was to a new cultural climate,… a new way of  looking at the world.  This new way of viewing people, places, and events would soon become known as modernism.

Dr. Charles William Eliot was then the President of Harvard University.  Dr. Eliot had several times made public statements, within the content of various speeches,… in reference to the great value of a good liberal personal education.  His comments contained information to the effect that it was his learned belief that the elements of a very good substitute for a liberal education could be fully obtained by simply spending 15 minutes a day of devoted reading from a collection of most important books that could, by themselves, fit and be stored on a five-foot bookshelf.  The renown publisher, P.F. Collier and Son immediately saw an opportunity and challenged Dr. Eliot to make good on his statement by selecting an appropriate collection of works (writings) which would indeed comprise what later became known to the public as the Harvard Classics Collection.

Dr. Eliot assumed the position of compiler and editor of the Harvard Classics anthology.  The collection was first published in 1909.

When Dr. Eliot finished his introduction to the Harvard Classics Collection in March 1910, he could have hardly guessed that such a great change,… as would later that same year be predicted by Virginia Woolf was looming just over the horizon.  Historians remain tempted to think that Dr. Eliot’s five-foot shelf of books, chosen as a record  of the “progress of man…from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century,” was meant as a time capsule… from that era just about to end.

Dr. Eliot personally selected as an assistant, William A. Neilson, a professor of English, who would later become President of Smith College.  These two men worked closely together for one year choosing and assembling all of the works to be used in their soon to be published collection.  Dr. Eliot determined the actual works to be included, and Professor Neilson selected the specific editions and wrote introductory notes.  Each volume of the collection contained between 400 and 450 pages, and the included texts are “so far as possible, entire works or complete segments of the world’s written legacies.”  The entire collection was widely advertised by P.F. Collier and Son in Collier’s publications and elsewhere with great success.

Gathered within the 50 volumes comprising the collection, there exists a record of what President Eliot’s America and his Harvard, thought were the  best in their own heritage–a monument from a more humane and confident time.  Publisher P.F. Collier and Son sold some 350,000 sets of this collection within 20 years of the series’ initial publication.

From the onset, this project was intended to be a commercial enterprise.  In February 1909, Dr. Eliot was preparing to retire from the presidency of Harvard after 40 years of faithful service.  The bringing together of the needed writings to complete the series would be a wonderful way to “finish well” his senior years as a retiree.  By the time publication began in 1910, Eliot’s celebrity had turned the series into a media event, and earned Collier valuable free publicity, all to their great thankfulness and happiness.

In his introduction to the series, dated March 10, 1910. Dr. Eliot made it clear that the Harvard Classics were intended not as a museum display-case of the “World’s best books,” but as a portable university.  While the volumes are numbered in no particular order, Dr. Eliot suggested that they could be approached as a set of six courses:

  1. The history of civilization.
  2. Religion and Philosophy.
  3. Education.
  4. Science.
  5. Politics.
  6. Criticism of Literature and the Fine Arts.

In a more profound sense, the real lesson taught by the Harvard Classics is Progress–progress in each of these departments and in the moral quality of the human race as a whole.  Dr. Eliot’s introduction expresses complete faith in the “intermittent and irregular progress from barbarianism to civilization,…“the upward tendency of the human race.”

Charles William Eliot’s life was spent in the cultivation of that tendency.  He built up Harvard into one of the world’s great universities, vastly expanded its student body, course offerings, and faculty, and became a sort of public oracle on questions of education.  He was one of the most effective evangelists for what the Victorian poet and critic, Matthew Arnold, called “sweetness and light.”  Samuel Eliot Morrison, in Three Centuries of Harvard, describes Dr. Eliot as a representative of “the best of his age–that forward-looking half-century before World War embraced the globe,… when democracy seemed capable of putting all crooked ways straight–the age of reason and of action,… of accomplishment and hope.”

Many self appointed critics of the Harvard Classics series tell us that someone should have kept updating the series as time passed.  But who would do it, since the concept and vision for the project went to the grave with Dr. Eliot.  Had anyone attempted to continually update the five-foot shelf over the 103 years since it was originally created, the shelf would have had to grow to the size of Widener Library.   

It would hardly be worthwhile for a person to simply point out what is missing from the Harvard Classics of 1910, since (time marches on and waits for no man)  a Harvard Classics of 2013 would soon look just as inadequate.  And perhaps it would be impossible, today, to present any group of books as an essential library, when the very idea of cultural authority is so bitterly disputed–within the university as well as outside of it.  President Eliot’s “five-foot shelf”, survives, not as a definitive cannon , but as an inspiring testimony to his faith in the possibility of democratic education without the loss of high standards.  If we scrutinize it today for its shortcomings, we are only paying it the tribute of applying our own standards, the products of a darker and more skeptical age. 


Learn More, Know More, and Become More……….

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