The Harvard Classics

The Harvard Classics met with instant success upon their publication. Despite its name and pedigree, the series was designed for a popular audience and within a few years several hundred thousand sets had been sold to aspiring middle-class families across the country. Focusing on that distinctive American spirit of self-reliance and self-improvement, Eliot wrote, in his Introduction:
I hope that many readers who are obliged to give eight or ten hours a day to the labors through which they earn their livelihood will use The Harvard Classics, particularly young men and women whose early education was cut short and who must therefore reach the standing of a cultivated man or woman through the pleasurable devotion of a few minutes a day through many years to the reading of good literature.
It's probably no accident that the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin makes up the first section of the first volume of the set. This famously self-educated American owed his fortune and achievements to hard work and lifelong autonomous study, best illustrating the value of Eliot’s purpose in bringing higher learning “to any intellectually ambitious American family.”

If anyone has Volume 17 or 34 of
Set No. 496, last seen in Pittsburgh,

I'd love to hear from you!
My own family’s copy of the Harvard Classics was a fixture in our home as long as I can remember. My father bought them at a garage sale in 1968 for $25. It is a hand-numbered “deluxe alumni edition” from 1909. Volumes 17 and 34 are missing. The pages are uncut, with many left deckle-edged or unopened. Unopened pages were common at the time. The reader would have to carefully slice the pages apart as he read.

As a kid I imagined them at worst dusty and irrelevant, at best, authoritative and imposing; but always dry, antiquated, and probably very difficult to read. In a few instances Eliot himself agreed with this last thought. Like Adler, he felt the best way to self-education is careful reading of source material, especially that beyond our “comfort zone” or as Adler would say, “over our heads”:
Although a good part of the reading provided in the Harvard Classics may fairly be called interesting, there are also volumes or portions of volumes which make hard reading, even for a practiced student. In the literature of other days some of the topics treated are unfamiliar, and, moreover, the state of mind of the authors is apt to be strange to the present generation. The sentiments and opinions these authors express are frequently not acceptable to present-day readers, who have to be often saying to themselves: "This is not true, or not correct, or not in accordance with our beliefs." It is, however, precisely this encounter with the mental states of other generations which enlarges the outlook and sympathies of the cultivated man, and persuades him of the upward tendency of the human race.
Interesting about this passage is that what we would today call “politically correct” is turned on its head. The works of other times and other cultures are left unfiltered by conscience or convention; we are invited to make our own comparisons and judgments, provided we keep our minds open.

Today the tables are turned on Eliot. According to at least one commentator, the selections—and the exclusions—made for the series reflect turn-of-last-century values. Among the predictable self-conscious modern criticisms are that no women or minority writers are represented. There are arguments to be made in Eliot’s defense. Firstly, nearly all nineteenth century fiction was excluded, said Eliot, because it wouldn’t fit and “because it is easily accessible.” So the Brontë sisters, for example, could not be included. Secondly, and this is less a defense than a counterpoint, is Eliot’s inclusion of both Darwin and the Bible, and for that matter texts from Hindu, Buddhist, and “Mohammedan” traditions. Imagine a US publisher marketing selections from the Koran “to any intellectually ambitious American family” in 2010! Perhaps not every tendency of the human race is consistently upward.

It is important to judge any historical subject by the standards of its time, not ours, and in light of its own purposes, not those we wish to assign to it. Only in context can the visionaries of the past be appreciated for what they were, and their works understood as they were meant to be. This blog will adopt that position as best it can. We should hope the visionaries of today are likewise treated one hundred years from now.

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MY PURPOSE in selecting The Harvard Classics was to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century...
The best acquisition of a cultivated man is a liberal frame of mind or way of thinking; but there must be added to that possession acquaintance with the prodigious store of recorded discoveries, experiences, and reflections which humanity in its intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization has acquired...
The purpose of The Harvard Classics is, therefore, one very different from that of the many collections in which the editor's aim has been to select the hundred or the fifty best books in the world; it is nothing less than to present so ample and characteristic a record of the stream of the world's thought that the observant reader's mind shall be enriched, refined, and fertilized by it.
--Charles W. Eliot 

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Postscript
The following item was published in the New York Times on April 10, 1911:
"Dr. Eliot Refused to Buy the Five-Foot Collection"
(PDF file) 




The Harvard Classics

Vol. 1: FRANKLIN, WOOLMAN, PENN
  • His Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin
  • Journal, by John Woolman
  • Fruits of Solitude, by William Penn

Vol. 2. PLATO, EPICTETUS, MARCUS AURELIUS
  • The Apology, Phædo and Crito, by Plato
  • The Golden Sayings, by Epictetus
  • The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Vol. 3. BACON, MILTON'S PROSE, THOS. BROWNE
  • Essays, Civil and Moral & The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon
  • Areopagitica & Tractate of Education, by John Milton
  • Religio Medici, by Sir Thomas Browne

Vol. 4. COMPLETE POEMS IN ENGLISH, MILTON

Vol. 5. ESSAYS AND ENGLISH TRAITS, EMERSON

Vol. 6. POEMS AND SONGS, BURNS

Vol. 7. CONFESSIONS OF ST. AUGUSTINE, IMITATIONS OF CHRIST
  • The Confessions of St. Augustine
  • The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas á Kempis

Vol. 8. NINE GREEK DRAMAS
  • Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Furies & Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus
  • Oedipus the King & Antigone, by Sophocles
  • Hippolytus, The Bacchæ, by Euripides
  • The Frogs, by Aristophanes

Vol. 9. LETTERS AND TREATISES OF CICERO AND PLINY
  • On Friendship, On Old Age & Letters, by Cicero
  • Letters, by Pliny the Younger

Vol. 10. WEALTH OF NATIONS, ADAM SMITH

Vol. 11. ORIGIN OF SPECIES, DARWIN

Vol. 12. PLUTARCH'S LIVES

Vol. 13. AENEID, VIRGIL

Vol. 14. DON QUIXOTE, Part 1, CERVANTES
  • Don Quixote, Part 1, by Cervantes

Vol. 15. PILGRIM'S PROGRESS, DONNE & HERBERT, BUNYAN, WALTON
  • The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan
  • The Lives of Donne and Herbert, by Izaak Walton

Vol. 16. THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS
  • Stories from the Thousand and One Nights

Vol. 17. FOLKLORE AND FABLE, AESOP, GRIMM, ANDERSON
  • Fables, by Æsop
  • Household Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen

Vol. 18. MODERN ENGLISH DRAMA
  • All for Love, by John Dryden
  • The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith
  • The Cenci, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, by Robert Browning
  • Manfred, by Lord Byron

Vol. 19. FAUST, EGMONT, ETC. DOCTOR FAUSTUS, GOETHE, MARLOWE
  • Faust, Part I, Egmont & Hermann and Dorothea, by J.W. von Goethe
  • Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

Vol. 20. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE

Vol. 21. I PROMESSI SPOSI
  • I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Vol. 22. THE ODYSSEY, HOMER

Vol. 23. TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, DANA

Vol. 24. ON THE SUBLIME, FRENCH REVOLUTION, ETC., BURKE
  • On Taste
  • On the Sublime and Beautiful
  • Reflections on the French Revolution
  • A Letter to a Noble Lord

Vol. 25. AUTOBIOGRAPHY, ETC., ESSAYS AND ADDRESSES, J.S. MILL, T. CARLYLE
  • Autobiography & On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill
  • Characteristics, Inaugural Address at Edinburgh & Sir Walter Scott, by Thomas Carlyle

Vol. 26. CONTINENTAL DRAMA
  • Life Is a Dream, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca
  • Polyeucte, by Pierre Corneille
  • Phèdre, by Jean Racine
  • Tartuffe, by Molière
  • Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
  • Wilhelm Tell, by Friedrich von Schiller

Vol. 27. ENGLISH ESSAYS: SIDNEY TO MACAULAY

Vol. 28. ESSAYS: ENGLISH AND AMERICAN

Vol. 29. VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE, DARWIN

Vol. 30. FARADAY, HELMHOLTZ, KELVIN, NEWCOMB, ETC
  • Scientific Papers: Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology

Vol. 31. AUTOBIOGRAPHY, BENVENUTO CELLINI

Vol. 32. LITERARY AND PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS
  • Montaigne, Sainte-beuve, Renan, etc.

Vol. 33. VOYAGES AND TRAVELS
  • Voyages and Travels: Ancient and Modern

Vol. 34. FRENCH AND ENGLISH PHILOSOPHERS
  • Discourse on Method, by René Descartes
  • Letters on the English, by Voltaire
  • On the Inequality among Mankind & Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, by Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Vol. 35. CHRONICLE AND ROMANCE, FROISSART, MALORY, HOLINSHEAD
  • Chronicles, by Jean Froissart
  • The Holy Grail, by Sir Thomas Malory
  • A Description of Elizabethan England, by William Harrison

Vol. 36. MACHIAVELLI, MORE, LUTHER
  • The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli
  • The Life of Sir Thomas More, by William Roper
  • Utopia, by Sir Thomas More
  • The Ninety-Five Theses, Address to the Christian Nobility & Concerning Christian Liberty, by Martin Luther

Vol. 37. LOCKE, BERKELY, HUME
  • Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by John Locke
  • Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, by George Berkeley
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume

Vol. 38. HARVEY, JENNER, LISTER, PASTEUR
  • The Oath of Hippocrates
  • Journeys in Diverse Places, by Ambroise Paré
  • On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, by William Harvey
  • The Three Original Publications on Vaccination Against Smallpox, by Edward Jenner
  • The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • On the Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery, by Joseph Lister
  • Scientific Papers, by Louis Pasteur
  • Scientific Papers, by Charles Lyell

Vol. 39. FAMOUS PREFACES

Vol. 40. ENGLISH POETRY 1: CHAUCER TO GRAY

Vol. 41. ENGLISH POETRY 2: COLLINS TO FITZGERALD

Vol. 42. ENGLISH POETRY 3: TENNYSON TO WHITMAN

Vol. 43. AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS 1000-1904

Vol. 44. SACRED WRITINGS 1
  • Confucian: The Sayings of Confucius
  • Hebrew: Job, Psalms & Ecclesiastes
  • Christian I: Luke & Acts

Vol. 45. SACRED WRITINGS 2
  • Christian II: Corinthians I & II & Hymns
  • Buddhist: Writings
  • Hindu: The Bhagavad-Gita
  • Mohammedan: Chapters from the Koran

Vol. 46. ELIZABETHAN DRAMA 1
  • Edward the Second, by Christopher Marlowe
  • Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth & The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

Vol. 47. ELIZABETHAN DRAMA 2
  • The Shoemaker's Holiday, by Thomas Dekker
  • The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson
  • Philaster, by Beaumont and Fletcher
  • The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster
  • A New Way to Pay Old Debts, by Philip Massinger

Vol. 48. THOUGHTS AND MINOR WORKS, PASCAL

Vol. 49. EPIC AND SAGA
  • Beowulf
  • The Song of Roland
  • The Destruction of Dá Derga's Hostel
  • The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs

Vol. 50. INTRODUCTION, READER'S GUIDE, INDEXES

Vol. 51 LECTURES ON THE HARVARD CLASSICS (included in later editions of the set)