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.”
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