Dear Son—So begins Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1788), and with it the Harvard Classics. On that New Year’s night, the words seemed to confirm my idea of the Classics as a communication from earlier generations, and I was excited to be finally receiving this communication. Several times over the months since I’d come up with my plan to read the Shelf, I’d considered getting an early start. I would walk to the place where the volumes waited in my parents’ library and run my fingers along their spines, wondering what secrets they held for me. The fifty-one volumes took up three shelves, each close to two feet wide—the whole thing a bit more than the advertised five feet, I guessed.
Reading a volume of four or five hundred pages a week didn’t seem like much of a task, but when these books were taken together the expanse was overwhelming.
Now there was nothing to keep me from them. I was ready to read.
But first, I thought I might fix myself a drink—after all, it was New Year’s eve. I walked from the library to the kitchen, thinking idly about the contents of this first volume. After Franklin’s Autobiography, the volume is rounded out by William Penn’s Fruits of Solitude and the journals of a Quaker named John Woolman. To be honest, I’d questioned the way the Shelf started ever since I first considered reading it. What was it about these relatively marginal works that earned such a prominent place for them? Why did Eliot start here?
As it happens, I wasn’t the first to ask these questions.
Eliot announced his retirement from Harvard in October 1908, to take effect the following May, on the fortieth anniversary of his election to the presidency. A few months after this announcement, two men—William Patten and Norman Hapgood—approached him about editing what became the Classics.
Patten had started in the advertising department at P. F. Collier & Son, where he was the assistant to Condé Nast. He was later moved to the book department, which produced mostly cheap anthologies to be used as inducements for subscribers to Collier’s Weekly, the muckraking magazine that was the company’s major business. (A few years earlier, the magazine had published Upton Sinclair’s initial investigations into Chicago’s meatpacking industry.) When Patten had the idea of a series of great books that could be offered for subscription, Eliot’s name came to mind. Patten proposed his idea to the editor of Collier’s Weekly, Hapgood, who was an acquaintance of Eliot’s. Hapgood assured Patten that there was “not a chance in the world” Eliot would agree to this sort of commercial undertaking. But after Patten produced an old article from Scribner’s Magazine, in which Eliot had mentioned his long-standing theory about a five-foot shelf that might provide a liberal education, Hapgood agreed to introduce Patten to Eliot. Somewhat to the surprise of both men, Eliot signed on, with the one condition that he be allowed an assistant. For that role, he chose William Neilson, a literature professor at Harvard who would later become the president of Smith College. Work on the Shelf began almost immediately.
A few weeks into this work, Eliot remarked in a speech given to a high school in Atlanta that he planned to dedicate the early days of his retirement to compiling his Five-Foot Shelf. The news quickly spread that America’s most famous educator intended to provide an outline by which any man or woman could attain the best education. It’s difficult now to imagine the excitement this announcement generated. Editorials appeared in newspapers around the country. While they waited for Eliot’s list to materialize, many of these newspapers invited the presidents of their own local colleges to offer candidates for inclusion. There was a great deal of debate about whether a true education could be had without formal instruction, especially in Latin and Greek.
Initially, Eliot gave no suggestion that his list was part of a business venture, and a number of other publishers—Houghton Mifflin and Funk and Wagnall’s among them—approached him with offers to publish his Shelf. Once Collier’s involvement became clear, there was suspicion about the project, especially among Harvard alumni, some of whom argued that their university’s name—and by extension, its reputation—was being used for personal gain. (In today’s age of rampant college licensing, the real surprise is how little compensation Eliot and the university received for their imprimatur: Eliot was given a $2,500 honorarium, which was renewed in later years; Neilson, who did the bulk of the work, was paid $50 a week; the university allowed its name and seal to be used for free.)
In May 1909, well before the selection of the Classics was finished, Collier’s salesmen began soliciting subscriptions, using a tentative, incomplete list of titles. This list soon made its way into the press, where it was roundly ridiculed. “Eliot Names Books for 5-Foot Library,” read a headline in the New York Times over the subhead, “Shakespeare Is Not in It.” On the basis of the odd selection of titles, some newspapers reported that Eliot had been duped into a scheme to unload Collier’s underselling backlist. In response to this report and to letters from a number of alumni, Eliot wrote an open letter in the July 7 issue of Collier’s Weekly.
“The incomplete and inaccurate list which appeared in the newspapers a few weeks ago was issued without my knowledge,” he wrote, “and gives an erroneous impression of [the] project.” He acknowledged Collier’s commercial motives, but he emphasized that his own interest in the project was educational—an assertion that Collier’s payment scheme tends to confirm. Eliot also assured readers that he had complete autonomy in choosing the titles for Shelf.
As it happens, this last part wasn’t entirely true. The company believed readers would be unlikely to buy a set that included several titles that they already owned—hence the initial exclusion of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, the two books that any literate household in those days was likeliest to own. This principle also meant excluding nineteenth-century novelists like Dickens and Thackeray, whose works were already offered by Collier. (In the wake of the controversy surrounding the partial list, Eliot would win out on the Bible and Shakespeare, but not on the novels; Dickens and Thackeray would later be included in the Harvard Classics Fiction Shelf, a second set compiled after the great success of the initial Shelf.)
Moreover, the choices that received the most ridicule in the press—Woolman and Penn—had been made before Eliot’s involvement in the project even began. Patten put this first volume together himself as part of his initial proposal to Eliot, who let the inclusion stand.
I knew very little of this on the night I began reading. Nor did I know that the volumes had been compiled in more or less random order. Like the newspaper columnists of 100 years ago, I assumed that Eliot had chosen these works to initiate the set for some good reason. I continued to puzzle over the question after I sat down with my drink, mostly because it was something to do besides reading the work that sat open in front of me.
The words stopped me as soon as I began. Here in my hands was a thick old book with an unbroken spine and four hundred pages. And there on the shelf were fifty more such books. It didn’t seem possible that a year from now the contents of all those volumes would have passed, however fleetingly, through my mind. But this wasn’t the only problem. The truth is that as I looked at all those books my whole plan, so fresh just a moment before, seemed suddenly very silly to me. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt this way if the Classics had started with Plato, or Homer, or Shakespeare. But the arbitrary beginning reminded me of the arbitrary nature of the project. Or better to say, both projects—Eliot’s effort to compile this set and my effort to read it. What did I hope to achieve with a yearlong act of literary peak-bagging? Why was I sitting by myself, reading a dead man’s letter to his son, instead of celebrating the New Year with my own family?
But these feelings were dispelled after I forced myself to push on. Franklin’s “letter” occupies about seventy pages, during which he passes along not just his own life story but his family’s history dating back more than a hundred years. He writes about his grandfather, father, and uncles, among them an elder Benjamin Franklin, also something of a man of letters, who liked to transcribe church sermons using, as the younger Franklin writes, “a short-hand of his own, which he taught to me, but, never practicing it, I have now forgot.”
Long after Franklin abandons the pretext of the letters, his Autobiography maintains its casually paternal tone. For long stretches it forgoes narrative entirely, in favor of simple fatherly advice. Here is the Franklin we all know: Poor Richard with his pithy aphorisms. The man had formed a shorthand of his own—for living—and he was eager that it be practiced and not forgotten. He tells us the thirteen virtues necessary for upright living, beginning with temperance (“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation”) and ending with humility (“Imitate Jesus and Socrates”). He even explains in practical detail how one can gradually acquire these virtues:
I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen. . . . I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.
Franklin filled his “little book” with schedules for each day ahead of him and with quotations from Cicero and the Bible. “Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining,” he allows, “yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been.” When I read these words in the first hours of the New Year, I imagined making such a book for myself. In it I would schedule out my reading for the months ahead. I’d write down quotations from the Classics that pertained to the perfection I was ambitious of obtaining. (First I would have to figure out what perfection that was.) I’d mark my progress, in reading and living both. Needless to say, I did none of these things. Still, I had recovered, for the time being, from my sinking suspicion that this project wasn’t really worthwhile. Franklin’s method felt inspirational.
But it didn’t feel literary. In my years as an undergraduate English major and a graduate student in writing, I’d been taught that good literature wasn’t didactic—at least not in such an obvious way. Literature might teach us about life, but it didn’t set down rules for daily living in the manner of a self-help book. Yet the first work in the Harvard Classics does just that. This strain is more insistent in some places than in others, more elegant here and less so there, but always present in Franklin’s work. If he didn’t have something to teach, one senses, he wouldn’t have bothered writing at all.
I had thought that “real” literature cared only what kind of reader you were, not what kind of person. But Franklin clearly wanted his readers to think about their life and how it might be better. Of course, the New Year is just the time for such thoughts. But I had already made my resolution—these books were my resolution. Now I was little more than two hours into the year—down the hall I heard my parents returning from their party—and I had the insistent feeling that reading wasn’t going to be enough, that what I did after closing the book would matter more.
It had been an unusually warm winter up to that point, but in January the weather turned cold. I was still working part time at the job I was in the process of leaving, and each day in those first weeks of the year I woke up, packed my book into my shoulder bag, and walked in the cold to my office, where I spent the morning doing my work and feeling vaguely out of place. A few of my coworkers who knew I was leaving invited me to goodbye lunches. I accepted each invitation gratefully, but when one o’clock came around I usually made some excuse to put off the lunch to the following week.
Instead I would walk to a restaurant down the block to eat alone and read. After only a few days, the once forbidding red volumes had become amiable companions. The pages were so old and brittle that pieces of them broke off into my lap as I read. I would order a glass of wine, just one, because it helped me to put away the morning’s work—the meeting that hadn’t gone well; the proposal my boss wasn’t happy with—and slip into the world of my reading. At the end of my lunch hour, I’d ask for the check and find that I had been charged for not one but two or three glasses of wine, because as it turned out that’s how many I’d had. Then I would stand up and brush the little crumb-like bits of yellowed paper off myself.
As I walked back to work, I found Benjamin Franklin walking along beside me.
“Eat not to dullness,” Frankin told me. “Drink not to elevation.”
“Shut up, Ben,” I answered.
Sometimes it wasn’t Ben Franklin but John Woolman or William Penn who tagged along to remind me that I had responsibilities incompatible with drinking three glasses of wine at lunch. By then I had continued along to Woolman’s Journals (1774) and Penn’s Fruits of Solitude (1693), works that made me feel even more acutely the difference between literature as I’d known it and what I was reading now.
In writing his introduction to this volume, William Neilson called Woolman “one of America’s uncanonised saints.” He was a Pennsylvania Quaker, Franklin’s contemporary, and a staunch abolitionist in a time when slavery was still prevalent in the northeast and unquestioned by men like Franklin. There’s good reason to esteem Woolman as a man, but little to recommend him as a writer. His journals are always admirable and almost always unreadable. They’re valuable, I suppose, as historical documents or as the record of an upright life, but not as literature. They have all the didactic fervor of Franklin’s Autobiography with none of the charm.
The preacherly tendency of the first two works reaches a kind of culmination with the last book of the first volume, William Penn’s Fruits of Solitude. The book has no narrative whatsoever; it’s a collection of maxims for healthy and moral living. A few of them are memorable: “Enquire often, but Judge rarely, and thou wilt not often be mistaken.” But after an hour of reading, I would mark my place only to find that twenty pages had passed and I’d absorbed almost nothing at all.
After reading Woolman and Penn, whose status as “Classics” seemed questionable at best, I was relieved to move on to the second volume, which begins with Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo (c. 375 BCE). Together, these three dialogues make up a kind of passion of Socrates. The Apology portrays his trial and sentencing for corrupting Athenian youth. In Crito, a young follower attempts to convince Socrates to escape from his cell into exile, which prospect Socrates examines with rational disinterest before abandoning. Last, Phaedo recounts Socrates’ final moments with his followers before he stoically accepts the hemlock that will kill him. I’d read a good deal of Plato in college, including all three of these works, and I thought I knew what to expect from them. Certainly I had no doubt of their literary merit.
Of course, the dialogues were written—like Franklin’s Autobiography—to instruct, but this was a different kind of instruction. In one class in college, a reading of Phaedo had led to a consideration of Plato’s theory of forms. In another, we’d read Crito and discussed different notions of justice. These were the sorts of things one expected to learn from such books. And it’s true enough that Socrates considers, over the span of these works, justice, metaphysics, and a host of abstractions. But as I read them now, the dialogues seemed quite obviously, at heart, to be concerned with the same question that concerned Franklin and Woolman and Penn: How are we supposed to live?
“A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying,” Socrates tells the men who stand in judgment of him. “He ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong—acting the part of a good man or of a bad.”
Some days I didn’t read at all during my lunch hour but went instead to visit my aunt Mimi, who was recovering from surgery in her apartment, not far from where I worked. I’d stop at a deli down the block and pick up a salad or some soup, and I’d sit beside her bed for half an hour or so. If anything remotely amusing had happened that morning at work, I’d tell her about it. Then she’d tell me about the visitors she’d had since the last time I’d come. Eventually we’d fall silent in the face of all the things we couldn’t talk about. Inevitably she’d ask, “How is your reading going?”
“It’s going well,” I’d say. Or, if I felt like being honest, “I’m not sure.”
“You’re going to be very smart when this is all over.”
“Oh, I know,” I’d joke. “I’ll be completely insufferable.”
This was a common response when people heard about the project I was undertaking. First they would ask how many books were in the Harvard Classics and then, after I’d told them, they would say something about how much I was going to learn, how much I would “know” when the year was over. So I was struck, when I read Plato’s dialogues, by the extent to which Socrates insists that his understanding of his own ignorance is the greatest understanding that he has. “I know,” he says in the Apology, “that I have no wisdom, small or great.” As for teaching others, he wants less to teach them new things than to undermine their previously held beliefs.
In the last hours of his life, Socrates discusses the immortality of the soul with his students. They are confident in their own thoughts on the matter, but through his usual combination of sharp questioning and studied irony, Socrates shakes their certainty. “First principles,” he tells his students, “even if they appear certain, should be carefully considered; and when they are satisfactorily ascertained, then, with a sort of hesitating confidence in human reason, you may, I think, follow the course of the argument; and if this is clear, there will be no need for any further inquiry.”
All the knowledge I might gain from reading these books, Socrates seemed to be telling me, would be worth little beside the knowledge of how little I still knew. Perhaps, I thought, this was what Franklin had had in mind when he urged himself, under the heading of “humility,” to imitate Socrates.
In the classroom, we might have evaluated Socrates’ self-proclaimed ignorance as a theory of epistemology. But we would never have asked whether it represented a stance worth emulating. Of course, I’d known before I started the Shelf that it contained a different kind of education from the one I’d been given in school. This difference was part of the point. But I hadn’t thought much about the nature of the difference. Of what exactly would it consist?
The world that Charles Eliot occupied for most of his life had ideas about education and culture very different from those we hold today. Before New York and then Los Angeles had their turns in the role, nineteenth-century Boston was America’s cultural capital, and Harvard was its statehouse. Throughout most of Eliot’s years in public life, the country’s most prominent cultural critic was his first cousin, Charles Eliot Norton, who had graduated from Harvard University and was a professor there. The country’s most famous philosopher was William James, also a professor at Harvard. And its literary forebears, the titans of the previous generation, were Longfellow, who had taught at Harvard and continued to live and write in Cambridge after his retirement from teaching; and Emerson, who had graduated from Harvard and made many of his most famous speeches there.
These were the pillars of what the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana came to call, somewhat derisively, the “genteel tradition.” This tradition understood education and culture as means of personal moral development. It also understood the role of the intellectual elite—the clerisy—as elevating the masses, exposing them to what the British critic Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” Culture upheld the standards and traditions of society at the same time that it helped the individual become a better version of himself.
Charles Eliot was not a scholar of the caliber of Norton or James. He started his career as an instructor of math and chemistry at Harvard, but he was eventually passed over for a professorship. Instead, he was a great educator and popularizer of the ideas of others. And the commercial success of the Harvard Classics suggests that a large part of the American working class believed in this idea of culture and wanted some of it for themselves.
At the time of Eliot’s retirement from Harvard, the “genteel tradition” still held sway in this country. But within a few years, after the carnage of World War I, the tradition had largely collapsed. The culture of Modernism, until then confined to a few countries in Europe, exploded on the American scene. The role of the arts was no longer to buttress tradition but to subvert it, to produce a radical break with the past, as the times seemed to demand. Culture began to separate itself into the “high” and the “low.” “High” culture was not disseminated from the top down but made by elites for elites. Eliot and other popularizers, who sought to make the best of the cultural tradition more widely accessible, would be derided as “middlebrow.”
By the time I started studying literature, this modernist sensibility was itself long outdated. The barrier between high and low culture that erected itself in the last decade of Eliot’s life had more or less collapsed. The result was not a return to the genteel, but a broad democratization—what many of Eliot’s peers would have called vulgarization. The days when culture was dispensed by the clerisy to the people for the purpose of internal growth are long gone, and they are unlikely ever to return.
First principles, even if they appear certain, should be carefully considered. I decided that week to forget, if only for the time being, what I thought I knew about what literature was, what it was supposed to look like, and what it was supposed to do. Once I made this decision, I saw those first volumes, beginning with Franklin and the defiantly unliterary Woolman, as a kind of corrective. The earliest parts of the Harvard Classics were trying to turn me into the person I needed to be in order to read whatever came next. Around the time that I came to this conclusion, I also arrived at the Meditations (c. 180 CE) of Marcus Aurelius, where I read these words:
Remember how long thou hast been putting off these things, and how often thou hast received an opportunity from the gods, and yet dost not use it. Thou must now at last perceive of what universe thou art a part, and of what administrator of the universe thy existence is an efflux, and that a limit of time is fixed for thee, which if thou dost not use for clearing away the clouds from thy mind, it will go and thou wilt go, and it will never return.
As a literary artist, Marcus Aurelius is a substantial improvement on Franklin or Penn. He is even an improvement, I think, on Plato. But the deepening of beauty in his writing in no way conceals a slackening of the moral imperative. That a limit of time is fixed for thee seems to be the overwhelming message of all his writing. It will go and thou wilt go. But somehow in his hands there is a lightness to this mordant message. He is accepting of the fact in a large-hearted way.
Lucilla saw Verus die, and then Lucilla died. Secunda saw Maximus die, and then Secundus died. Epitynchanus saw Diotimus die, and then Epitynchanus died. Antoninus saw Faustina die, and then Antoninus died. Such is everything.
Toward the end of the month, Mimi went back into the hospital—her surgery to remove the tumors from her foot had not been completely successful—and so I gave up reading during my lunch hour. Instead, I spent that hour each day in her hospital room. Usually my mother and my aunt Jaime were there, along with one or both of Mimi’s sons. There was a single chair in the room and we could usually find a second somewhere down the hall. But that left one or two of us to sit on the floor or scoot Mimi over to share a piece of her bed. We are a family that likes to laugh, even into the void, and that’s mostly what we did when we were all together in that room.
In order to keep up, I read a little later than usual at night. I passed on to Francis Bacon, Milton, and Thomas Browne. There was a great deal in all these writers that confused me. But then I read a passage from Browne’s Religio Medici (1643) that would stay with me throughout the year, even though I never fully understood it.
“Thus is Man that great and true Amphibium,” Browne wrote, “whose nature is disposed to live, not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds: for though there be but one to sense, there are two to reason, the one visible, the other invisible.”
This is how I was already beginning to feel, as though I were living in “distinguished worlds.” There was the everyday world around me, and then there was the world of these books. Bacon, Milton, and Browne all seemed to have absorbed the same works that I had read a week earlier. Bacon even makes reference, in his essay On Friendship (1601), to Aurelius as an example of “an abundant goodness of nature.” This fact added to my sense of a separate world I shared with them, a world where I had a part in an ongoing conversation. And I wanted to be worthy of that world, wanted to bring my very best self to this conversation.
The initial didactic strain of the Classics was already fading, but it had done its work on me. It’s difficult to say exactly what had changed. I was still reading to some degree to acquire knowledge, and I was certainly still reading for pleasure. But I was also reading to be a part in a great chain of readers: Aurelius read Plato, then Aurelius died. Milton read Aurelius, then Milton died. And here I sat up in bed reading Milton, fighting off the time when sleep would overtake me. Such is everything.