"Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf of Books": Toward a Centennial of the Harvard Classics

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On a damp October afternoon UPS recently deposited two heavy boxes at my front door. A glance at the postmark assured me that fifty volumes of my father's Harvard Classics had now come to live with me after my brother's death. In my childhood I remember these volumes as always behind the glass doors on the left side of the tiled fireplace. My father purchased them shortly before his marriage in 1914. I never remember seeing him reading any of these crimson classics each stamped with the Harvard shield of Veritas. But his lounge chair by the fire rested up against the glass doors as if he expected to absorb all those centuries of wisdom my osmosis. He was, in fact, a science teacher (and later a busy school administrator) who evidently felt that his new family should at least be exposed to fifty volumes of humane heritage.

I also remember one afternoon when I had finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped for a seventh-grade book report, I decided to investigate those Classics. I was much disappointed because there were no colorful illustrations like N. C. Wyeth's in some of my own "boy's library." And since each volume seemed to feature only rather dour engravings as frontispieces, I shut the Classics and the glass doors.

Later in my senior year in high school when reading Virgil's Aeneid, I examined Volume 13 with Dryden's poetic translation as a sort of jack to help me. When I discovered a few passages where Dryden's rendition seems a bit fuzzy and not quite accurate, I decided to slog along with my own parseable prose. Having learned in English class that Dryden was mistaken about his understanding of Chaucer's rhythmic versification, I decided, in my adolescent wisdom, to close those glass doors on Dryden as a not entirely reliable classroom aid. At home on college vacation, however, I was delighted to find a number of Elizabethan plays in Volumes 46 and 47 that I could read without visiting the public library. And when I remembered a college lecturer smugly reporting that even Socrates on his deathbed was concerned about mundane things like debts and borrowings--see Plato's Phaedo, the lecturer said. So I opened Volume 2 and read in Jowett's Victorian prose translation: "[Socrates] was beginning to grow cold [...] and said (they were his last words) [...] Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question. [...] Such was the end" (114). And such was my end with "Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf of Books" until they recently arrived on my doorstep.

Now that fifty volumes were suitably housed on my un-glassed shelves, I decided to measure them. The space they occupied was 5 feet 8 inches. Perhaps from almost ninety years of little use they had warped a few inches--as all antiques often do. That same afternoon of shelving and measuring I happened to open my Atlantic Monthly only to discover a full-page advertisement from the Eaton Press announcing that for $49.95 per volume I could obtain "The Harvard Classics, the Unsurpassed 'Five Foot Shelf of Knowledge.'" Each volume bound in genuine red leather has "accents of 22KT gold," to say nothing of the gilt-edged pages. I now realized that I owned a prize antique (though not bound in red and gold leather) that should be examined and studied. I began with volume 50, containing numerous essays, charts, indices, and the editor's Introduction, signed with as bold a script as John Hancock's, Charles W. Eliot. The frontispiece portrait of Eliot is surrounded with sculptured roses and grapes in turn-of-the-century elegance. The date of the Introduction to "Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf of Books" is March 10, 1910.

In February 1909 when President Eliot was at the end of his distinguished career of some forty years as Harvard's president, he signed a proposal to publish with P. F. Collier & Son sets of fifty volumes, each volume containing 400 to 450 pages: a "shelf [that he said] would hold books enough to give in the course of years a good substitute for a liberal education . …