Anyone strolling into almost any large antique bookstore has a good chance of finding the 50-volume set titled The Harvard Classics.
Sometimes called “The 5-Foot Shelf of Books,” the set, which was first published in 1910, was designed to substitute for a liberal education to everyone who read it diligently. Many people have, in fact, had their educational horizons broadened by The Harvard Classics. Malcolm X, for example, read the complete set while he was incarcerated.
The Harvard Classics was the creation of Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard University in the early 20th century. Eliot, who was appointed president in 1869 at the age of 35, was one of the United States’ foremost educators. Under his leadership, which lasted until 1909, Harvard became a national institution. It was one of the first schools to use standardized entrance examinations and to organize itself into specific schools and departments.
Eliot’s inspiration for The Harvard Classics was his firm belief, as he wrote in its 1910 introduction, that “Within the limits of 50 volumes, containing about 22,000 pages, I (can) provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the 20th century idea of a cultivated man. … (A)ny ambitious American family might use (this) to advantage, even if their early opportunities of education had been scanty.” This goal, Eliot felt, could be accomplished in only 15 minutes of planned reading a day.
Eliot’s insistence upon the “5-foot” element of the set reflected his idea of a small core selection of writers across the fields of history, science, literature, religion, education and politics. Originally, Eliot had announced that a 3-foot shelf would be enough to cover the basic readings in these fields, but he soon expanded the minimum number of needed books and a 5-foot shelf became his norm.
Of the 50 volumes, several are devoted to specific writers and others are collections of many writers in a particular field. Three of the volumes, for example, are centered on English poetry, with poets from Chaucer to Whitman represented. Another entire volume is on American historical documents.
Among the individual writers who have an entire volume dedicated solely to them are such figures as St. Augustine, Homer, Adam Smith, Dante and Darwin. In his editing of these writers, however, Eliot made some surprising choices. Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is included, for example, but not his Origin of Species. On the other hand, Milton’s Complete Poems are a separate volume of the Classics.
Many of the writers have introductions — prepared by Eliot — that summarize their works. Eliot did not hesitate to give his own interpretation in many instances. Machiavelli, for example, is described by him as really being a secret republican who had to write in a style suitable for princes in order to get his work published.
By contemporary standards, some of the names included in the Classics should have been downplayed. Other names do not appear that, after a century’s hindsight, should have been included. Eliot devoted, for example, an entire volume to the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the early 16th-century Italian artist. While a fascinating character, one who received several pardons for murder from the Pope because he was such a magnificent artist, Cellini is hardly a world-class figure. On the other hand, Eliot mentions Nietzsche not at all, despite the fact that this philosopher’s writings had been published 30 years before The Harvard Classics appeared. Since Nietzsche has been the foundation of much of 20th-century philosophy, this is a curious error on Eliot’s part. Nor does Eliot mention Karl Marx or Freud even once in his collection. Except for the collection of poetry, the Classics also are silent as concerns women writers.
This is not to suggest that Eliot focused exclusively on male European and American writers. The Koran is part of The Harvard Classics, as are the Arabian Nights and the sayings of Confucius. Still, the accusation that the Classics is a heavily European-centered set of works is well founded. It would be interesting to see what writers would be selected now for a similar 5-foot shelf of books. Many of Eliot’s selections, such as Homer and Dante, would undoubtedly still be on the list, but many others, especially from non-European and American regions, would today be included and female writers would be much more represented.
As soon as it was published, however, The Harvard Classics met with great success. Collier, the publisher, was previously familiar with the marketing of unrelated multi-volume works including those of Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dickens. In fact, it was Collier who originally suggested the idea of the Classics to Eliot after two Collier editors heard Eliot give a speech to an audience of workingmen. Between 1910 and 1930, Collier sold about 350,000 sets of the Classics. In addition, the Classics inspired other collections of seminal works, such as the later publication of Great Books of the Western World, which is still found in many school and public libraries.
Today a complete set of The Harvard Classics in good condition can be purchased for around $300. Individual books typically cost only a few dollars. Given the hundreds of thousands that were published, sets are relatively easy to find. While certainly in need of updating and revision, The Harvard Classics is still a valuable addition to any library.