When Charles William Eliot assembled The Harvard Classics—more commonly known as The Five-Foot Shelf and later the Shelf of Fiction—he gathered this epic collection of key works which he thought would best represent “the progress of man… from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century.” God reveals himself through history and literature—through the thoughts of philosophers, the characters of great fiction, and the cadences of poetic verse. These classics are vital tools for study and ministry, because they cultivate the life of the mind and reveal the intricacies of human nature.
The Harvard Classics provided the general reader with a great storehouse of standard works in all the main departments of intellectual activity. To this storehouse the Lectures now open the door. Through the Lectures the student is introduced to a vast range of topics, under the guidance of distinguished professors. The Five-Foot Shelf, with its introductions, notes, guides to reading, and exhaustive indexes, may claim to constitute a reading course unparalleled in comprehensiveness and authority.
—William Allan Nelson, Editor-in-Chief, Webster's New International Dictionary, 1934
The Lecture Series on the contents of The Harvard Classics ought to do much to open that collection of literary materials to many ambitious young men and women whose education was cut short by the necessity of contributing in early life to the family earnings, or of supporting themselves...It will certainly promote the accomplishment of the educational object I had in mind when I made the collection.
—Charles W. Eliot, President, Harvard University, 1869
Charles William Eliot (1834-1926) was selected as Harvard’s President in 1869 and served the longest term as President in the University’s history. He graduated from Harvard in 1853 and was appointed Tutor in Mathematics there in the fall of 1854. In 1858 he was promoted to Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Chemistry, but the coveted appointment to the Rumford Professorship of Chemistry eluded him. Eliot left Harvard in 1863 and, instead of going into business or finding another teaching position, traveled in Europe for nearly two years, studying the educational systems of the Old World. He took an interest in every aspect of institutional operation, from curriculum and methods of instruction through physical arrangements and custodial services. But his particular concern was with the relation between education and economic growth. During this time abroad, Eliot was offered and declined a superintendent position at the Merrimack Company, one of the largest textile mills in the United States.
Returning home in 1865, Eliot accepted an appointment as Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the newly-founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He published his ideas about reforming American higher education in a compelling two-part article in The Atlantic Monthly, the nation's leading journal of opinion. Harvard had found itself in a crisis of short-term presidents and languishing curriculum, so it turned to Charles W. Eliot. Under his leadership, Harvard began to expand the range of courses offered, permitting undergraduates with unrestricted choice in selecting their courses of study. This enabled them to discover their "natural bents" and pursue them into specialized studies. The university soon became a center for advanced scientific and technological research. During his forty year presidency, the university extended its facilities with laboratories, libraries, classrooms, and athletic facilities. Eliot was able to attract the support of major donors from among the nation's growing plutocracy, making it the wealthiest private university in the world.