Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part II): Assessing the Fiction Selections

For all that I took the Harvard Classics to the woodshed in the first part of this series, the Great Books of the Western World shall get their fill in this one.  Let me preface this post by saying that I will not too strongly impose my opinions upon the two sets of books, in the sense that I will only criticize selections on the basis of what I think is within the realm of acceptability.  That is, I will criticize those selections which wouldn’t make my top 100 fiction selections, let alone my top dozen or two.  Also, I will include epics in this discussion, and keep them separate from poetry, at least for the purposes of this post.

To begin with, Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais has to be the worst choice of fiction title in the Great Books of the Western World.  I have tried to be kind to Gargantua and Pantagruel, seeking out different translations and even editions with notes.  On the former point, the point of translations, my understanding is that Adler did not care much about the translation selected for inclusion, or so Allan Bloom says in his The Closing of the American Mind; so I have sought other translations/editions, finding them to be very similar.  The other reason for seeking another edition is that the construction of the edition included, which is probably as rough as the original, untranslated text, is absolutely horrible: iIn some places, you aren’t quite sure who is speaking, where the narration begins, ends, and so forth.  On the matter of notes, the work is supposed to be a comedic work, and, as any who has read Candide knows, the difference between getting the jokes and not, is a good set of notes explaining the contemporary reference.  I still remain open to being convinced that Gargantua and Pantagruel is a worthy selection, but I found it insufferable, and very few books, especially true classics, make me feel as though I can’t make it through the entire work, as this one did.  In sum, I think it is egregious that Adler included this work, and I can only think that he did so out of some bizarre personal penchant, or because of the political/philosophical elements of the work that appealed to him.

As far as Western foundational literature goes, it would be a bit of alienation to exclude the Iliad, Odyssey, the Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy.  I am not sure why the Harvard Classics contained the Aeneid but not the Odyssey; it’s sort of like cutting a story in half, and missing the point that Rome had a tremendous amount of respect for the Greeks, especially in the historical sense in which Rome declared Greece to be under the protectorate, and virtually equal to Rome.  At the end of the day, I can’t complain too much, except to air the minor grievance that cutting the story in half leaves out some key elements in understanding the Western perspective, as it was instantiated.

Given that these collections are expressly for the Americans, the inclusion of some Chaucer is absolutely necessary, because it contains important insights into the development of the English language.  Middle English is a great fascination to many modern English speakers, and the surviving literature from the period is overwhelmingly, extraordinarily rich.  This makes sense, considering that the most valued tales with the greatest impact through the ages would have been preserved, if not in writing, then certainly orally.  The only complement that I could desire is that of Beowulf, which, I would argue, is equally important to understanding the development of the language.  Moreover, I think Beowulf possesses glimpses into the human condition that arise from an underrepresented period in Western literary history, making it all the more important.  Unfortunately, the Great Books of the Western World, once again, dropped the ball on this one, but the Harvard Classics contain it.

Gulliver’s Travels is yet another mystery, to my mind.  I cannot begin to tell you on what basis this work was chosen, other than the fact that it contains an incredible amount of philosophical and religious ideas.  The story is enjoyable, but as far as being among the top one hundred works of fiction, I would doubt that I have met a dozen people who would claim such.  The work does contain an important trope, that of man as a wanderer, which is thematic in everything from The Wanderer to Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein.  That this is an important element of the human condition, I do no doubt; but I don’t think it merits the choosing of this particular work for the GBWW.

Two works that I cannot comment on, because, at the time of writing this (though soon to be remedied), I have not read, are Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentlemen.  I should note that it is not just by virtue of the fact that I am physicist, and consequently have not read these works, rather, it is because these two works, in particular, were taken out, in the printing of the second edition; and I have had access only to the second edition, and was not previously aware of this ad hoc omission.

One work that makes me wonder is Moby Dick, not because it isn’t among the best works of fiction ever written, but because I wonder what it was about the work that earned it a spot over, say, The Count of Monte Cristo.  Certainly, I have no formal complaint against Moby Dick, and the masterful prose attests to its just inclusion.  However, I do have this feeling that some other works were excluded on the basis that they had to be translated, and, therefore, would have been lacking in the prose department.  This is just my thought on the Great Books of the Western World.  The Harvard Classics are not susceptible to similar claims.  I definitely think that the GBWW were compiled with a very different taste than I, myself, have.  For example, the works chosen to represent Austen, Dickens and Dostoevsky are other than what I would have picked, but that is no matter, though I might ask readers to comment on whether they think Little Dorrit is better than Great Expectations, for one.  The inclusion of The Metamorphosis over The Trial is another minor irritation, which I won’t belabor, except to say that there may be no better allegorical work ever written than the latter; but The Metamorphosis has certainly been en vogue (and is much shorter), so Adler can’t be begrudged on the matter of, as Thomas Jefferson said, “swimming with the fish” in matters of fashion.

One contraction made by the Harvard Classics, which I feel acceptable, was only including part I of Don Quixote.  While I praise GBWW for including the entirety of the works included, and whole collections of works by particular authors, Don Quixote is one of the few works that can be condensed or chopped in half without doing much harm.  I once read a three-hundred page abridged version of Don Quixote, and, after finding that it was an abridged edition, feeling dirty over the matter, I quickly picked up the unabridged version.  (I hate how so many books do not note that they are abridged!)  After reading it, I can honestly say that very little was lost.  Don Quixote is a fine example of how much reading was the television of former times, and I mean that in the sense that you don’t want to have the entertainment end, so there are all of these sub-stories that have been included, where characters tell stories or a book in the story is read, and so on.  On top of this, there is no real continuous plot, and many scholars, while enjoying the book as I do, say that they don’t really know what the mission was, after all is said and done; but as E. E. Cummings once noted, a great book never ends, and so we turn Don Quixote back to the first page and read it again.  At any rate, the point should be clear: if you are interested in a taste and the gist, this is a work that can be contracted without offense.

One major leg up that the Harvard Classics have over the Great Books of the Western World is the inclusion of (at least) an excerpt of Émile.  Part of the reason for this inclusion, no doubt, is to be fair to all sides of religion, which includes natural religion.  Though it is a leg up, I think it is sad that neither collection contains the whole text.  It truly is one of the most extraordinary expressions of Romanticism, in all of the history of literature.

Of the Harvard Classics, at the time of writing this, I have not read Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr., Minna von Barnhelm by Gotthold Lessing, and The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel.  Of these, the choice of Lessing’s work strikes me, because I had not previously heard of it, while I often hear reference after reference to his Nathan the Wise.  Anyways, these are the fictitious works that extend beyond the ambit of my ability to comment.  The only other comment I have for the Harvard Classics’ fiction is that they were exceptionally well chosen, but I do wish that there would have been more novels included.

The fiction selections for both collections are decent.  The inclusion of mythic sagas in the Harvard Classics is laudable, but they would be much better off to have contained another major novel, beyond Faust and Don Quixote.  Aside from this, there is not too much to complain about, as the fiction selected makes for very good reading.  The major concern is the Great Books of the Western World’s selections, particularly the two that are, above, named.  I wish I knew what the philosophy was in selecting the fiction for the GBWW, so feel free to comment on this, if you have any suspicions (or you know why).  The selections, in toto, are not that bad, and I do think Gulliver’s Travels is enjoyable, even if I see it as not deserving its place.

In the next part, I will assess the works of philosophy in the collections.

To be continued



Filed under Great Books and Harvard Classics Series, Literature

5 responses to “Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part II): Assessing the Fiction Selections

  1. Chad

    I thought to myself ‘how nice would it be if I could compare the selections in the Great Books to that in the Classics.’ I do a quick search and come across your site, wow. What you have done here is of great help to me and I wanted to thank you for the work that you did in writing this. This is the first time I have visited your site but certainly not the last.
    Thanks again.

    • Hi Chad,

      Thanks for the feedback. Let me know if there is any particular set of aspects you would like to know about or comparisons you’d like to see done.


  2. B_Dubb_B

    If I remember correctly, the reason some choices seem odd is that they were not selected based upon their greatness, per se. They were selected based on how many of the one hundred and some topics in The Syntopicon/Great Ideas that they applied/contributed to. This may account for the odd inclusions, and exclusions, when it comes to Nietzsche and others.

  3. Clark Coleman

    ” I am not sure why the Harvard Classics contained the Aeneid but not the Odyssey; …” I believe you meant to say that the Harvard Classics omitted the Iliad. The Odyssey was included.

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