Download The Harvard Classics as Free eBooks: A “Portable University” Created in 1909

Every rev­o­lu­tion­ary age pro­duces its own kind of nos­tal­gia. Faced with the enor­mous social and eco­nom­ic upheavals at the nine­teenth century’s end, learned Vic­to­ri­ans like Wal­ter Pater, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold looked to High Church mod­els and played the bish­ops of West­ern cul­ture, with a monk­ish devo­tion to pre­serv­ing and trans­mit­ting old texts and tra­di­tions and turn­ing back to sim­pler ways of life. It was in 1909, the nadir of this milieu, before the advent of mod­ernism and world war, that The Har­vard Clas­sics took shape. Com­piled by Harvard’s pres­i­dent Charles W. Eliot and called at first Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, the com­pendi­um of lit­er­a­ture, phi­los­o­phy, and the sci­ences, writes Adam Kirsch in Har­vard Mag­a­zine, served as a “mon­u­ment from a more humane and con­fi­dent time” (or so its upper class­es believed), and a “time cap­sule…. In 50 vol­umes.”

What does the mas­sive col­lec­tion pre­serve? For one thing, writes Kirsch, it’s “a record of what Pres­i­dent Eliot’s Amer­i­ca, and his Har­vard, thought best in their own her­itage.” Eliot’s inten­tions for his work dif­fered some­what from those of his Eng­lish peers. Rather than sim­ply curat­ing for pos­ter­i­ty “the best that has been thought and said” (in the words of Matthew Arnold), Eliot meant his anthol­o­gy as a “portable university”—a prag­mat­ic set of tools, to be sure, and also, of course, a prod­uct. He sug­gest­ed that the full set of texts might be divid­ed into a set of six cours­es on such con­ser­v­a­tive themes as “The His­to­ry of Civ­i­liza­tion” and “Reli­gion and Phi­los­o­phy,” and yet, writes Kirsch, “in a more pro­found sense, the les­son taught by the Har­vard Clas­sics is ‘Progress.’” “Eliot’s [1910] intro­duc­tion express­es com­plete faith in the ‘inter­mit­tent and irreg­u­lar progress from bar­barism to civ­i­liza­tion.’”

In its expert syn­er­gy of moral uplift and mar­ket­ing, The Har­vard Clas­sics (find links to down­load them as free ebooks below) belong as much to Mark Twain’s bour­geois gild­ed age as to the pseu­do-aris­to­crat­ic age of Victoria—two sides of the same ocean, one might say.

The idea for the col­lec­tion didn’t ini­tial­ly come from Eliot, but from two edi­tors at the pub­lish­er P.F. Col­lier, who intend­ed “a com­mer­cial enter­prise from the begin­ning” after read­ing a speech Eliot gave to a group of work­ers in which he “declared that a five-foot shelf of books could pro­vide”

a good sub­sti­tute for a lib­er­al edu­ca­tion in youth to any­one who would read them with devo­tion, even if he could spare but fif­teen min­utes a day for read­ing.

Col­lier asked Eliot to “pick the titles” and they would pub­lish them as a series. The books appealed to the upward­ly mobile and those hun­gry for knowl­edge and an edu­ca­tion denied them, but the cost would still have been pro­hib­i­tive to many. Over a hun­dred years, and sev­er­al cul­tur­al-evo­lu­tion­ary steps lat­er, and any­one with an inter­net con­nec­tion can read all of the 51-vol­ume set online. In a pre­vi­ous post, we sum­ma­rized the num­ber of ways to get your hands on Charles W. Eliot’s anthol­o­gy:

You can still buy an old set off of Ama­zon for $750. But, just as eas­i­ly, you can head to the Inter­net Archive and Project Guten­berg, which have cen­tral­ized links to every text includ­ed in The Har­vard Clas­sics (Wealth of Nations, Ori­gin of Species, Plutarch’s Lives, the list goes on below). Please note that the pre­vi­ous two links won’t give you access to the actu­al anno­tat­ed Har­vard Clas­sics texts edit­ed by Eliot him­self. But if you want just that, you can always click here and get dig­i­tal scans of the true 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 an addi­tion­al twen­ty vol­umes called the “Shelf of Fic­tion.” Read those twen­ty vol­umes—at fif­teen min­utes a day—starting with Hen­ry Field­ing and end­ing with Nor­we­gian nov­el­ist Alexan­der Kiel­land at Bartle­by.

What may strike mod­ern read­ers of Eliot’s col­lec­tion are pre­cise­ly the “blind spots in Vic­to­ri­an notions of cul­ture and progress” that it rep­re­sents. For exam­ple, those three har­bin­gers of doom for Vic­to­ri­an certitude—Marx, Niet­zsche, and Freud—are nowhere to be seen. Omis­sions like this are quite telling, but, as Kirsch writes, we might not look at Eliot’s achieve­ment as a rel­ic of a naive­ly opti­mistic age, but rather as “an inspir­ing tes­ti­mo­ny to his faith in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of demo­c­ra­t­ic edu­ca­tion with­out the loss of high stan­dards.” This was, and still remains, a noble ide­al, if one that—like the utopi­an dreams of the Victorians—can some­times seem frus­trat­ing­ly unat­tain­able (or cul­tur­al­ly impe­ri­al­ist). But the wide­spread avail­abil­i­ty of free online human­i­ties cer­tain­ly brings us clos­er than Eliot’s time could ever come.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Harold Bloom Cre­ates a Mas­sive List of Works in The “West­ern Canon”: Read Many of the Books Free Online

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Lit­er­a­ture Syl­labus Asks Stu­dents to Read 32 Great Works, Cov­er­ing 6000 Pages

The Har­vard Clas­sics: A Free, Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tion

975 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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