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The Western Canon that Was

Tuesday March 28th 2006, 6:38 pm

The “Five-foot Shelf” Reconsidered

On or about December, 1910,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “human character changed.” Woolf was not referring to a specific event so much as to a new cultural climate, a new way of looking at the world, that would become known as modernism. When he finished his introduction to the Harvard Classics in March of that same year, Charles William Eliot could hardly have guessed that such a change was just over the horizon. Yet it is tempting to think that his “five-foot shelf” of books, chosen as a record of the “progress of man…from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century,” was meant as a time capsule from that era just about to end. In 50 volumes we have a record of what President Eliot’s America, and his Harvard, thought best in their own heritage–a monument from a more humane and confident time.

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