General Introduction to the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction By Charles W. Eliot, LL.D.
THE SELECTION of twenty volumes of famous fiction as a supplement to The Harvard Classics, and also for separate sale, has proved to be a very interesting undertaking. The first question was what national literatures ought to be represented; the second, what authors in each nation. Both these questions had great interest. The actual contents of The Harvard Classics affected them both.
In the original selection of The Harvard Classics, fiction was admitted only to a small extent, and none was admitted that was later than 1835. Indeed, Manzonis I Promessi Sposi, a historical novel published in 1826, was the only book included that would now be called a novel. Don Quixote (Part I) and Pilgrims Progress, two other pieces of prose fiction which found place in the collection, both belonging to the seventeenth century, have a character quite distinct from that of the nineteenth-century novel, romance, or story. Selected stories from the Thousand and One Nights constituted one volume of The Harvard Classics, representing there ancient Oriental fiction made known to Europe two centuries ago, and since engrafted on European literature; but these stories differ widely from the fiction of the nineteenth century in style, matter, and motive. Another kind of fiction, the fable and wonder story, was illustrated in The Harvard Classics by one volume containing fables which pass under the name of Æsop, the tales collected by the brothers Grimm, and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen; but again this form of fiction is distinct from that which the new set of twenty volumes is in tended to illustrate. Yet, after all, there are five volumes of fiction in The Harvard Classics; and that fact necessarily affected the present choice.
This collection contains modern novels, romances, and short stories, the oldest of which appeared in 1749, but most belong to the nineteenth century. The twenty volumes represent seven different national literatures, namely: English, American, French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Scandinavian. More than half the set, eleven volumes, is devoted to English and American fiction, French having two volumes, German two, Russian four, and Spanish and Scandinavian sharing one volume.
The great inventors in novel-writing wrote in English; but the short story has been developed by the English, the Americans, the French, the Germans, and the Scandinavians. The Russian novel is a type by itself. It has had an extraordinary influence in Russia, and has done much to make Russia known to the rest of the reading world. The influence of the novel on social and industrial reform has been strong in all the countries in which it has been well developed; and the historical romance and the novel have been, since the opening of the nineteenth century, a new force in the world.
The selection of individual authors came next; and then the choice, if possible, of the most appropriate and desirable work of each author. Here certain limitations which took effect on The Harvard Classics had again to be accepted. Many admirable novels or romances were too long to be included in this set. Living authors were excluded. No books are included of which it cannot fairly be said that they were famous in their generation, and have since shown a strong power of survival. Each author is represented by a work generally counted among his best; so that any one who reads the whole set may feel that he has made the acquaintance of thirty writers of modern fiction under favorable conditions. He will have seen each of them in some characteristic and durable production.
On the choice of authors, and the choice of the best available work of each author, it soon appeared that no general consent among competent judges was likely to be attained and that the ultimate decision would necessarily be more or less arbitrary, and liable to provoke dissent. The selection of the best authors and of the best book of each author depends on taste, literary discrimination, and moral judgments, combined with individual affections or devotions which are often warm. Discussion of these choices with numerous good judges developed a great variety of opinions on both these kinds of selection or preference. But, although there was no general consent that the selected authors were all the best of their nation, or that the selected book representing each author was his best, there was general consent that the authors were all creditable representatives of the fiction of their respective nations, and that the work selected for each was a good representative of the authors genius. The differences of opinion related to comparative values, not to the positive merit of the authors and works chosen.
The value of the set is enhanced by the biographical and critical introduction, written by Professor Neilson, and by the six essays on the several national contributions to the collection. There is no work in the series which does not illustrate good literary form, and none which may not be read over and over again with pleasure and profit. It provides the intellectually ambitious family with a body of interesting and enjoyable literature, good not only for the present generation but for their children and grandchildren. It portrays the emotions, the passion and some of the moral efforts of the nineteenth century and the last half of the eighteenth century, and pictures vividly the changing manners and social states during that tremendous period; but in so doing it portrays intense human feelings and motives which will be only slowly modified and purified in time to come. It is, therefore, a durable collection.