Each revolutionary era produces its own kind of nostalgia. In the face of the enormous social and economic upheavals of the late 19th century, Victorian scholars like Walter Pater, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold looked to High Church models and played the bishops of Western culture, with monastic devotion to preserve and transmit ancient texts and traditions and return to simpler ways of life. It was in 1909, at the bottom of this milieu, before the advent of modernism and the world war, that The Harvard Classics took shape. Compiled by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot and called at the beginning Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelfthe compendium of literature, philosophy and science, writes Adam Kirsch in Harvard Review, served as a “monument to a more humane and trusting era” (or so its upper classes believed), and a “time capsule…. In 50 volumes.
What does the massive collection keep? On the one hand, Kirsch writes, it is “a record of what President Eliot’s America and his Harvard thought best of their own legacy.” Eliot’s intentions for his work differed somewhat from those of his English peers. Rather than simply preserving for posterity “the best that has been thought and said” (in the words of Matthew Arnold), Eliot viewed his anthology as a “portable university” – a pragmatic set of tools, of course, and also, of course, a product. He suggested that the complete set of texts could be divided into a set of six courses on conservative themes such as “The History of Civilization” and “Religion and Philosophy”, and yet, writes Kirsch, “in a sense deeper, the lesson taught by the Harvard Classics is ‘Progress.'” “Eliot’s  the introduction expresses complete faith in the “intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization”.
In his expert synergy of moral elevation and marketing, The Harvard Classics (find the links to download them as free ebooks below) belong as much to the bourgeois golden age of Mark Twain as to the pseudo-aristocratic age of Victoria – two sides of the same ocean, you might say.
The idea for the collection did not initially come from Eliot, but from two editors at publisher PF Collier, who wanted “a business venture from the start” after reading a speech Eliot gave to a group of workers in which he “stated that a five-foot shelf of books could provide”
a good substitute for a liberal education in youth for anyone who would read them devoutly, even if he could devote only fifteen minutes a day to reading.
Collier asked Eliot to “choose the titles” and they would release them as a series. Books appealed to those on the rise and those with a thirst for knowledge and education turned them down, but the cost would still have been prohibitive for many. Over a hundred years, and several stages of cultural evolution later, and anyone with an Internet connection can read all 51 volumes online. In a previous article, we summarized the many ways to get your hands on Charles W. Eliot’s anthology:
You can still buy an older set from Amazon for $750. But, just as easily, you can head to the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, which have centralized links to all the texts included in The Harvard Classics (Wealth of Nations, Origin of Species, Plutarch’s Lives, the list continues below). Please note that the two previous links will not give you access to the Harvard Classics annotated texts edited by Eliot himself. But if you just want that, you can always click here and get digital scans of the real Harvard classics.
In addition to these options, Bartleby has digital texts of the entire collection of what they call “the most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time”. But wait, there’s more! Much more, in fact, since Eliot and his assistant William A. Neilson compiled twenty additional volumes called “Shelf of Fiction”. Read these twenty volumes – at fifteen minutes a day – beginning with Henry Fielding and ending with Norwegian novelist Alexander Kielland in Bartleby.
What may strike modern readers of Eliot’s collection are precisely the “blind spots of Victorian notions of culture and progress” that it represents. For example, these three harbingers of Victorian certainty – Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – are nowhere to be found. Omissions like this are telling enough, but, as Kirsch writes, we might not view Eliot’s achievement as a relic of a naïvely optimistic era, but rather as “an inspiring testament to his faith in the possibility of a democratic education without the loss of a high level of education”. standards.” It was, and still is, a lofty ideal, though it is one that, like the utopian dreams of the Victorians, can sometimes seem frustrating and unattainable (or culturally imperialistic). But the widespread availability of free online humanities certainly brings us closer than the days of Eliot could ever come.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness