In the fall of 1909, a big-game hunter in Africa perused a list of books that would become the Harvard Classics and dismissed it as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘odd’ and ‘slightly absurd.’
The hunter was ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, on a yearlong safari with his son Kermit. He had graduated from Harvard in 1880, Charles W. Eliot’s 11th year as president of the university. Eliot retired in 1909, the same year Roosevelt’s term in the Oval Office expired.
Eliot had often said in speeches that a working man could get the essentials of a liberal education if he read for 15 minutes every day from a ‘five-foot shelf of books.’ Two men from the P.F. Collier & Son publishing house -- Norman Hapgood and William Patten – loved the idea. They asked Eliot to come up with a list of the books he would fit on the shelf. That list was published as a 50-volume set, known as Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf, and later, the Harvard Classics. Eliot called it a ‘portable university,’ and it was a stunning success.
The list was made public before the volumes were actually published, and Roosevelt’s wife Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt sent it to him in Africa.
The Harvard Classics
There wasn’t a single woman author. Philosophy left out Montaigne and Aristotle. Science books would be quickly outdated as they were limited to Darwin, Newton, Copernicus, Harvey, Pasteur and Faraday. No 19th century fiction.
Roosevelt, an avid reader, had come up with his own portable library for his safari – the ‘Pigskin Library,’ perhaps as famous as Dr. Eliot’s five-foot shelf of books.
Before Roosevelt left for Africa, his sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson asked if she could give him a present. She wrote of her brother, that
…his eyes sparkled like a child who was about to receive a specially nice toy, and he said: '…I think I should like a pigskin library.’
He gave his sister a list of books (see the list here) and she obliged. The books were bound in pigskin to protect them from the African climate, and carried "in a light aluminum and oil-cloth case, which, with its contents, weighed a little less than sixty pounds, making a load for one porter."
It include plenty of 19th century fiction, including Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
He later described how he carried his books:
I almost always had some volume with me, either in my saddle-pocket or in the cartridge-bag which one of my gun-bearers carried to hold odds and ends. Often my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I had killed, or else while waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washing. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust and ashes...
Roosevelt was a close friend of his Harvard classmate Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts, and his wife Anne.’ In a letter from Africa to ‘Cabot’ and ‘Nannie,’ he criticized Eliot’s list.
North of Mt. Kenia
Sept. 10th, 1909
Dear Cabot and Nannie,
...Edith sent me ex-President Eliot's list of books. It is all right as a list of books which a cultivated man would like to read; but as the list it strikes me as slightly absurd. I have never heard of Woolman's Journal, but to include it and Penn's "Fruits of Solitude," while leaving out Cervantes and Montaigne, seems odd. To put in Emerson's "English Traits," and leave out Herodotus, Tacitus and Thucydides; to put in Tennyson's "Becket," Middleton's "Changeling" & Teny Dryden's "All for Love" and entirely leave out Æschylus, Sophocles, Goethe,Moliere & Calderon (while; to put in a translation of the Aeneid & leave out Homer; in short to put in half the books he has put in, while leaving out scores of really great masters, of every description, from Aristotle to Chaucer and Pascal and Gibbon, not to speak of all poetry and novels—why I think that such things done and left undone make the list ridiculous as the espe as the list of books to "give a man the essentials of a liberal education" ; although excellent if avowedly only one of a hundred possible lists of excellent books, any one of which lists would furnish good reading. Personally, I think do not have much patience with serious people going into such business as preparing the "twenty-five best books" of the world. There are so many
thousand good books, in so many languages, suited for so many different moods, and needs, and
individuals, that all a man ought to do is to say that a given number of books proved of interest and use to him personally at a given time and under given conditions.
The Pigskin Library is now at Harvard's Houghton Library, with a replica on display at the Nathan Marsh Pusey Library. The Harvard Classics are easily found on eBay. They include an addendum: a fiction shelf.
For Roosevelt’s full explanation of his issues with Eliot’s list, click here.
With thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society.