A Great Idea at the Time

The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books


By Alex Beam

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Today the classics of the western canon, written by the proverbial “dead white men,” are cannon fodder in the culture wars. But in the 1950s and 1960s, they were a pop culture phenomenon. The Great Books of Western Civilization, fifty-four volumes chosen by intellectuals at the University of Chicago, began as an educational movement, and evolved into a successful marketing idea. Why did a million American households buy books by Hippocrates and Nicomachus from door-to-door salesmen? And how and why did the great books fall out of fashion?

In A Great Idea at the Time Alex Beam explores the Great Books mania, in an entertaining and strangely poignant portrait of American popular culture on the threshold of the television age. Populated with memorable characters, A Great Idea at the Time will leave readers asking themselves: Have I read Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura lately? If not, why not?


Gracefully Insane: Life and Death
Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital
Fellow Travelers
The Americans Are Coming!

To my three great sons

ON APRIL 15, 1952, the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica formally launched the Great Books of the Western World. Millions of Americans had just filed their the Western World. Millions of Americans had just filed their taxes. It was the night of the New Jersey primary; General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who happened to be in Brussels, had defeated “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert Taft. The very same day, Adlai Stevenson, who would eventually lose to Eisenhower in November, announced he had no intention of running for president.
But at the black-tie gala dinner in the Jade Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the subject was not the moment; it was eternity. As the moneyed glitterati of the American mid-century—the Rockefellers, the Goodriches, the Houghtons, and the Vanderbilts—feasted on prime rib of beef, they were invited to cast their eyes upward to a raised dais. There sat a freshly minted set of the deluxe, faux-leather Great Books, all fifty-four volumes of them, nine years in the making, stuffed with 443 works by seventy four white male authors, purporting to encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud. Great Britain’s consul general, H. A. Hobson, was on hand, prepared, in theory, to pass the first Great Books set on to his boss, Queen Elizabeth. A few months later, in a similarly staged event, President Harry S Truman would receive his Great Books at the White House.
The star of the show was Robert Maynard Hutchins, the glamorous, no longer young, former president of the University of Chicago, who had published the books with his brilliant, Hobbit-like sidekick, Mortimer Adler. Hutchins, the “boy wonder” appointee to the Chicago presidency in 1929, had left the Hyde Park campus the year before. Hutchins’s Yale classmate and boon companion, William Benton, ad man and hustler extraordinaire, took the podium to pronounce the Great Books project “the most significant publishing event since Dr. Johnson’s dictionary.” Hutchins himself looked upon his work and declared it to be good: “Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety,” he proclaimed. “Here are the sources of our being.”
Make no mistake: This was no charitable act of cultural enrichment. Hutchins, Adler, and Benton had wallpapered their launch event with pseudo-celebrities and rich people for one purpose only, to sell sets of what Hutchins sardonically called their “colorful furniture.” They were taking a big risk. They had bet $2 million on the proposition that an American family would repair to the den after dinner and crack open Christian Huygens’s 1690 Treatise on Light, chock-full of forbidding, spiderweb diagrams, or mull over this excerpt from chapter 5, “On the Strange Refractions of Iceland Crystal”: “For we have stated before this that the line N being the radius of a spherical wave of light in air, while in the crystal it spread through the spheroid ABPS, the ration of N to CS will be 156,962 to 93,410.”
The books were full of speed bumps. Yes, there was Shakespeare, as well as Tolstoy’s War and Peace (no Anna Karenina; too readable!). But there was also Ptolemy’s endless Tables of Anomalies for the apogees of the planetary orbits in specific skies; Copernicus’s charts of the parallaxes and semidiameters of our solar system; and, in musical notation, Johannes Kepler’s cosmic question, “In the Celestial Harmonies Which Planet Sings Soprano, Which Alto, Which Tenor, and Which Bass?”
William Benton, Robert Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler celebrate “the most significant publishing event since Dr. Johnson’s dictionary.” DEPARTMENT OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
The Great Books of the Western World were in fact icons of unreadability—32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type. There were no concessions to contemporary taste, or even pleasure. The translations of the great works were not particularly modern. There were no footnotes to mitigate the reader’s ignorance, or gratify his curiosity. Only two nominal twentieth-century writers, William James and Sigmund Freud, made the cut. No Romantic poets, no Mark Twain, and no Jane Austen. Yet backed by advertising hype and by unscrupulous, foot-in-the-door salesmen, Britannica would eventually sell 1 million sets, each costing several hundred dollars each. Against all odds, the Great Books joined the roster of postwar fads like drive-ins, hula hoops, and Mexican jumping beans. Tens of thousands of Americans rushed to join Great Books discussion groups, prompting Time magazine to print the hilarious claim that “Great Books has switched many Americans—at least temporarily—from the works of Spillane to those of Spinoza and St. Augustine.”
And then, nothing.
Well, almost nothing. Sales sputtered in the late 1960s, flat-lined in the 1970s, and later fell off the cliff. An attempted 1990 relaunch of the Great Books—this time with women!—was a disaster. Unsold sets of the Great Books of the Western World now languish in a warehouse. Britannica no longer markets them. Among major universities, only Columbia, where the whole idea began, still force-feeds a much-abbreviated version of the Great Books curriculum to its undergraduates. Tiny St. John’s College, created by disciples of Hutchins and Adler, still devotes all four years to teaching the Great Books, as Hutchins vainly hoped the University of Chicago would do. In the late 1940s, Hutchins predicted that 15 million Americans would eventually join Great Books discussion groups. The Great Books Foundation, which ekes out an existence in Chicago’s ornate, riverfront Jewelry Building, optimistically estimates that 10,000 Americans now participate in their discussion groups.
What’s astonishing is not that the number is so small but that any groups exist at all. “We are a dying breed,” admits Carol Beam, not a relation, who hosts an annual Great Books week at Colby College in Maine. “It’s sort of an underground thing now.”
Underground, indeed. I had never heard of the Great Books until a reader of my column in the Boston Globe sent me an e-mail asking why a company called Liberal Arts, Inc., bought a huge estate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1947. Curious, I learned that millionaire, dilettante, Great Books devotee Paul Mellon was planning to move St. John’s College from Annapolis to the Berkshires. (It never happened.) One thing led to another, and suddenly I had plunged myself into the romantic and chaotic world of Hutchins, Adler, and their irrepressible intellectual hucksterism. My ignorance abetted my bliss. Making the acquaintance of Robert Hutchins for the first time, as so many of his colleagues said at the time, was like falling in love. On the other hand, to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake. To write this book, I joined Carol Beam’s “underground,” attending Great Books weekends, visiting St. John’s College, and walking across the street to my local library for Great Books nights, to discuss Gibbon, Machiavelli, and Aristophanes. I even bought a set of the books, enticed by this too-candid description on eBay:
You are bidding on a set of 54 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World. This set is complete. These are black leatherette hardcovers with gold on the tops of the pages. There are no creases, torn pages, dog ears or damage of any kind. All are beautiful, clean and bright. I doubt these have ever been opened or read (emphasis added).
They do crack mightily upon opening.
Who did read these books? Who chose them, anyway? Who bought them? Why did the Great Books die? Or did they? Who is still reading them? Did Thomas Aquinas (“a walking wine barrel,” G. K. Chesterton called him) really need a donkey cart to move from one place to another? I decided to answer these questions in a brief, engaging, and undidactic history of the Great Books.
A book as different from the ponderous and forbidding Great Books as it could possibly be.

WHERE TO BEGIN? Why not with Frederic William Farrar, the Dean of Canterbury, a former Harrow schoolmaster, friend of Charles Darwin, biographer of Jesus Christ, and ex-Apostle, a member of Cambridge University’s most rarefied intellectual club. Farrar wrote a series of essays on Great Books in 1898 for the London monthly The Sunday Magazine, hailing five authors as “supreme”: Dante, Milton, Bunyan, Thomas à Kempis, and William Shakespeare. Around the same time, the French Positivist philosopher Auguste Comte assembled his Positivist Library, 270 works by about 140 authors, many of whom we might call the usual suspects: Byron, Goethe, Gibbon, and Hume.
In his later years, Comte began to practice what he called “hygiene cerebral,” shunning newspapers and other chroniclers of the moment to focus his mind on the eternal verities. Instead of catching up on the news, each morning he would read—presumably for the umpteenth time—a snippet of Dante or part of Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. He and Farrar agreed that great books chased out the bad, and worse: Time spent with the classics might otherwise be “deplorably wasted in devouring scraps of disconnected and vapid intelligence,” Farrar wrote. As Stanford scholar W. B. Carnochan put it:
The Victorian age was intellectually and spiritually intoxicated by the greatness of great books, comforted by what F. D. Maurice (in the title lecture of a volume published in 1856) called “The Friendship of Books” and Alexander Ireland called the “solace and companionship of books,” . . . obsessed with the dangerous proliferation of bad books, and awash in advice never to settle for or to indulge in the second-rate, much less to permit oneself to indulge in a surfeit of journalistic ephemera.
Then and now, the Great Books lent themselves to gimmickry. Another son of Victoria’s England, John Lubbock, member of Parliament, amateur scientist, father of eleven children, and principal of the Working Men’s College in London, proposed a list of his era’s 100 best books and published it in the Pall Mall Gazette, a popular illustrated newspaper. There were no particular surprises: Homer and Virgil; Aeschylus and Sophocles; Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante; Bacon, Descartes, and Locke; Thackeray, Dickens, and George Eliot. But unlike subsequent canoneers, Lubbock made no special claims for his list, and indeed encouraged others to suggest changes. Smelling a circulation booster, the Gazette sent Lubbock’s list and a request for comment to the notables of the day, almost all of whom mailed their emendations back to the paper. A public parlor game was born.
Novelist Wilkie Collins, the headmasters of Eton and Harrow, the American minister to Great Britain, and William Morris all sent in suggested changes. Cardinal Newman politely replied in the third person, saying “he was not up to the task.” John Ruskin returned the list, having run his pen through the entries that he considered “rubbish and poison”: Mill, Darwin, Adam Smith, Descartes, Berkeley, and Locke. He hated Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and told the Gazette why: “Good men study and wise men describe, only the growth and standing of things, not their decay.” What’s more, “Gibbon’s is the worst English that was ever written by an educated Englishman.”
Forgotten novelist James Payn voiced the secret thoughts of many Great Books-sloggers over the years: “When I look through the list of books you send me I cannot help saying to myself, ‘Here are the most admirable and varied materials for the formation of a prig.’”
The most famous—and most dubious—response arrived from Edward the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, popularly known as “Edward the Caresser” for pursuing high-profile love affairs with the likes of actress Lillie Langtry and others. In a painfully orotund reply to Lubbock drafted by his secretary (“I am desired by the Prince of Wales to thank you for your letter . . .”), His Royal Highness “venture[d] to remark that the works of Dryden should not be omitted from such an important and comprehensive list.” The letter elicited mute guffaws, as Edward maintained a George W. Bush-like distance from the literary affairs of his day.
The next man to take a crack at selecting Great Books was Charles Eliot, the retiring—literally, not figuratively—president of Harvard. Appointed president in 1869, Eliot had cut a broad swath through American education. First, he had started the transformation of Harvard from a gentlemen’s college into a modern university by shoring up the law and medical schools, and adding a European-style graduate school in the humanities. Second, he smashed the existing undergraduate curriculum to smithereens. Before Eliot, the young men at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton took pretty much the same courses, for all four years:
Harvard freshman year: Greek, Latin, Math, French, Elocution, Ethics
Yale freshman year: Greek, Latin, Math
Harvard sophomore year: Physics; Chemistry; German; recite twenty chapters of Gibbon; Greek; Latin; Math
Yale sophomore year: Greek, Latin, Math
Harvard junior year: Philosophy, Physics, Chemistry, Forensics
Yale junior year: Greek, Math, Logic, Physics, Rhetoric
Harvard senior year: History, Philosophy, Latin, Greek
Yale senior year: Philosophy, Moral and Mental; Chemistry; Geology; Political Science; History; Rhetoric
Those were, respectively, the Harvard curriculum of 1869 and Yale’s of 1875. Yale’s official historian, George Pierson, called the pedagogy “moribund.” It was a grind, pure and simple, with students parroting back lines from obscure Greek poems or dozing through lecture cycles by superannuated profs. “The emphasis on memorizing and repeating made automatons of the tutors and disciplinarians of the professors,” Pierson wrote. At Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, “[a] medieval schoolman would at once have known where he was,” Pierson continued: smack in the heart of the ancient curricula, the Trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic—and the Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The first two and a half years of the elite Ivy League education dated back a thousand years!
Despite a public plea from his fellow university presidents, Eliot jettisoned Harvard’s Greek requirement in 1884, and by 1899 the college had an all-elective curriculum. Yale grudgingly followed suit, introducing “optional” courses into the four-year-long course of study. Eliot “firmly believed that a young man of eighteen or nineteen could choose his course, even among infinite combinations, better than anyone else could do it for him,” according to Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison. By the beginning of the new century, Morison noted, the college catalog fat with elective course offerings “seemed to be as firmly established as the trivium and quadrivium of the middle ages.” He compared the modern course list to the fat Sears Roebuck catalogs emanating from the company’s headquarters in Chicago. Just a few years after Eliot had implemented his reforms, Sears opened a $5 million, 3-million-square-foot mail-order fulfillment building, on Chicago’s West Side, the largest business building in the world. America was becoming a land of consumers, and a land of choice. Chemistry professor Charles Eliot was very much in tune with the times.
Eliot’s reform casts a long shadow on the events of this book. Robert Maynard Hutchins graduated from Yale in 1921 and later claimed he had learned next to nothing in New Haven. During his twenty-year tenure as president of the University of Chicago, he dreamed of instituting a four-year, required undergraduate curriculum modeled on the medieval Quadrivium and Trivium. Hutchins hated what Eliot had done. “He thought President Eliot was the greatest educational criminal ever born,” former University of Chicago president Hannah Gray told me, “because he championed the elective system.” Curiously, both Eliot and Hutchins despised undergraduate football, and one of Eliot’s few failures during his forty-year reign was his repeated failure to ban the sport, which he called “more brutalizing than prize-fighting, cock-fighting, or bull-fighting.”
But Eliot’s schedule-jiggering pedagogy had little to do with his championing of the first American set of “great books,” the Harvard Classics. In the final year of his Harvard presidency, he casually mentioned in a speech to a working-class audience that a five-foot shelf of books would 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.” Of course, that was precisely the kind of education he had just eliminated in Cambridge. Two editors from P. F. Collier’s publishing house challenged Eliot to follow through on his comment, and the Harvard Classics were born. It wasn’t much more than a publicity stunt, albeit a very successful and lucrative one, for both Harvard and Collier.
What did Eliot include in his portable university? Two volumes of Darwin, Adam Smith, a smattering of Copernicus and Newton, and Dante and Shakespeare of course. In a 2001 article in Harvard magazine, critic Adam Kirsch noted that Eliot, a man of science, mistrusted his instincts, which were poor, on questions of imaginative literature. He liked The Odyssey but not The Iliad, and included the poetry of Robert Burns but not that of Chaucer. Kirsch ascribed to Eliot “a settled distrust of abstract thought; in every case, Eliot prefers autobiography to speculation.” Astonishingly, Eliot chose not to include Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. He likewise cold-shouldered Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. “There is something obviously flawed about a criterion that admits Richard Henry Dana’s moderately interesting memoir ‘Two Years Before the Mast,’ because it is ‘fact,’ but has no place for ‘Moby Dick’ because it is ‘fiction,’” Kirsch wrote. A cynic might attribute Dana’s inclusion to his Harvard education—he also taught there—while Melville, who left school to become a cabin boy, memorably wrote that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”1
But here is the point: The Harvard Classics made a lot of money. The admen didn’t shy away from hucksterism (e.g., “How to Get Rid of an Inferiority Complex”)—buy the five-foot shelf! Collier sold 350,000 sets of the Classics in twenty years. Those are not Gone with the Wind-type numbers, but they are not bad for challenging reading.
In 1916, the Harvard Classics caught the eye of a precocious 15-year-old in Washington Heights, Manhattan, who had quit high school to work at a daily newspaper, the New York Sun. In a nighttime extension class offered by Columbia University, young Mortimer Adler bumped up against the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, who could read Greek at 3 and by age 5 was conversant with Plato’s dialogues. Throw me in that briar patch, was Adler’s age-inappropriate reaction. In search of Plato, Adler looked in on his neighbor, one Sam Feldman, a lawyer and inveterate book buyer, who owned Mr. Eliot’s famous shelf. Adler quickly devoured four of Plato’s dialogues and became “so fascinated by the Socratic method of questioning that I persuaded my friends to engage in mock dialogues.” “I have it on the testimony of my sister that I was a difficult child,” he recalled.
The young Adler, who would later trumpet the superiority of his and Hutchins’s 62-inch shelf, the Great Books of the Western
World, to Mr. Eliot’s paltry 60 inches, proclaimed himself “dissatisfied with the incompleteness of the selections from Plato.” “I bought a secondhand set of the Jowett translations in five volumes and began to spend time at my desk at the ‘Sun’ reading the dialogues of Plato instead of doing the work that earned my weekly paycheck,” he later wrote.
Comes now John Erskine, a professor in the early-twentieth-century Ivy League mold, son of a well-to-do New Jersey factory owner, whose acolytes later called him the “spiritual father” or “onlie begetter” of the Great Books. Although Erskine indeed begat many of the events described in this book, paternity of the Great Books movement was only one chapter in his very unusual life. An expert on Elizabethan poetry, Erskine was also a gifted pianist who left his Columbia University sinecure in 1927 to become the first president of the reorganized Juilliard School of Music, which had merged with the Institute of Music Art. And although he bears much responsibility for tormenting successive generations of Columbia undergraduates with required “core curriculum” classes devoted to Herodotus, Thucydides, Montaigne, and Boccacio, Erskine himself wrote for a much broader audience. Starting with his breezy, inane, best-selling novel, The Private Life of Helen of Troy, his popular novels, loosely grounded in the classics, graced many a national best-seller list.
A gentleman of the old school—he was a vestryman at the 92nd Street Trinity Episcopal parish, where he rubbed shoulders with the Columbia trustees—Erskine was refreshingly free of hang-ups. He knew a great book when he saw one. “A great book is one that has meaning, and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time,” he proclaimed, and he knew that he wanted to teach such books to undergraduates. Erskine had been a Columbia undergrad himself, and he shared the campus sentiment that his students were reading less good literature than their fathers had. In 1916, the University’s Committee on Instruction fretted that the electives curriculum, aping Harvard, was eroding the “social aspect of scholarship,” inasmuch as students were wandering off in all directions. Furthermore, the Committee noted that the typical Columbia student “is said not to know the great authors in polite literature; he is said not to know what has happened in the world; and he is said not to know the master ideas in philosophy and science.” They compared this hypothetical student unfavorably with “the superlatively educated college man of only a generation or so ago, who was on speaking terms with the classics in the fields of literature, of history, of philosophy. . . .”
Erskine, like Robert Hutchins after him, felt it was “the elective system within American education that had contributed to the students’ lack of familiarity [with ‘great’ authors and] to an inability to talk about them,” according to Great Books historian Hugh Moorhead. “College students, he noticed,”
could no longer hold conversations with their fellow classmates on anything held in common other than one or two textbooks. . . . In Erskine’s own college days, at the beginning of the century, everyone took the same courses, had the same books, many of them great. . . . Both good literature and good conversation, the two complementing one another, flourished.
Just before proposing a great-books course to the Columbia faculty in 1917, Erskine accepted an assignment to join the American Expeditionary Force in France as an educational adviser, first to the YMCA, and then to the U.S. Army. At General John Pershing’s request, Erskine opened a huge, temporary university for 12,000 American soldiers waiting to return from France after World War I. Pershing worried that his doughboys, freed from the trenches, might wreak havoc on the French countryside. “All they need is something to occupy their minds,” Pershing told Erskine. “Keep their minds busy, or they’ll concentrate on girls and cognac. Then there’ll be street fights, and France will want to throw us out.”
Erskine’s university at Beaune offered courses in history, English, geometry, arithmetic, bookkeeping, commercial law, foreign trade, principles of accounting, shorthand, agriculture, engineering, heating and ventilation, and automobile mechanics—anything that might appeal to a demobilized soldier. Erskine loved the job—“If you were here for five minutes, you would see that this work is the moral and intellectual salvation of thousands of boys,” he wrote his mother—and he loved the idea that Beaune had no academic departments and no degree requirements, unlike its stateside equivalents. “When you apply at the door of a university for instruction in a particular thing,” he told his soldiers in 1919, “you find that the university expects you to become a candidate for a degree. . . . [I]t expects to label you.” And he was perfectly happy to have grown-ups in the classroom. “The education of adults ought to be as natural in society as the education of youth,” he wrote.
Back at Columbia, Erskine again pitched his great-books course idea for the 1920 academic year. “Why not treat The Iliad, The Odyssey, and other masterpieces as though they were recent publications, calling for immediate investigation and discussion?” he proposed, pointing out that most classics were shorter than contemporary novels and had been written for broad audiences in their time.


On Sale
Nov 4, 2008
Page Count
360 pages

Alex Beam

About the Author

Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe and for the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of two works of nonfiction, Gracefully Insane and A Great Idea at the Time, both New York Times Notable Books. He has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, and Forbes/FYI. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and three sons.

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