Journey through Harvard University president Charles Eliot’s “five-foot shelf” of classics. This collection, first published in the early 1900s, remains one of the most comprehensive and well-researched anthologies of all time.
Making good on earlier claims that he could fit the elements of a liberal education on a five-foot shelf, Eliot gathered this collection of key works, together with English professor William Neilson—who selected editions and wrote introductions.
The massive collection covers major literary figures, philosophers, theologians, folklore, and historical subjects through the end of the nineteenth century. Originally published as a 51-volume collection of classics, the rise of modernism prompted Dr. Eliot to create an additional 20-volume collection of fiction—“The Shelf of Fiction”—to supplement his first collection. These two collections come together to create The Harvard Classics and Fiction Collection (71 vols.). Among others, you’ll find the writings of Augustine, Goethe, Plato, Pasteur, Pascal, Milton, and More. Explore the masterworks of authors like Poe, Tolstoy, Austen, Dante, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky. The collection also includes a volume with 60 lectures, introducing and summarizing the fields of religion, history, poetry, natural science, philosophy, biography, prose fiction, criticism and the essay, education, political science, drama, and travel.
Now you can explore a cross section of the intellectual forces that shaped our society, in a collection Eliot likened to a “portable university.” Though not numbered in a specific order, Eliot suggests that these volumes be approached as a set of six courses: the history of civilization, religion and philosophy, education, science, politics, and criticism of literature and the fine arts. With over 33,000 pages of written legacy—the works that have shaped the Western tradition—the Harvard Classics and Fiction Collection is a must-have library for students and lovers of the classics.
Charles William Eliot (1834–1926) served as president of Harvard University for 40 years, helping to shape the struggling provincial college into a premier American research university. Eliot graduated from Harvard in 1853, and was appointed tutor in mathematics in 1854, before becoming assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry. Eliot left Harvard in 1863 and 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, to physical arrangements and custodial services. But his particular concern was with the relation between education and economic growth.
Returning home in 1865, Eliot accepted an appointment as professor of analytical chemistry at the newly-founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1869, he published a two-part article with his ideas about reforming American higher education in The Atlantic Monthly, catching the attention of Harvard businessmen trying to pull the university out of a crisis of short-term presidents and languishing curriculum. Eliot was quickly elected as the youngest president in Harvard’s history. 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 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.