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The Five-Foot Shelf, part five

Posted by David Mehegan  October 23, 2006 10:45 AM

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Mathematician and chemist Charles William Eliot (1834-1926) was the most enduring president of Harvard, serving from 1869 to 1909. Besides driving the great expansion of professional and scientific studies at Harvard, he was a strong believer in learning for uplift among working men. This conviction made him a natural editor for the Harvard Classics, the "Five-Foot Shelf of Books," published in 1910. At publisher P.F. Collier's proposal, Eliot threw himself into the project after retiring from Harvard. When it was published, it was a public event.

Charles William Eliot.jpg

Eliot in 1926

It was not easy for working men and women at that time to own a hardcover library of classic works. We're accustomed today to the Modern Library, Everyman's Library, and the Library of America. We can pop into any bookstore and pick up a quality paperback edition of Dante, "Moby-Dick," Plato, even the complete works of Shakespeare. In 1910, paperback meant dime novels. My grandfather, John Humphreys, made full use of the Boston Public Library, and acquired other books, but the heart of his library was the "Five-Foot Shelf."

He was an attentive parent and a faithful churchgoer. But for pleasure, he read. "He read every night, until one or two in the morning," my mother wrote in her 1980 memoir, "always profound works, especially philosophy, never fiction." Fired with enthusiasm, he would eagerly try to tell my grandmother, who was intelligent, but not bookish, about something of Descartes or Spinoza, but she would say, "Oh John, not now." Sometimes a close friend of Grandad's, a schoolteacher, would come by the apartment and the two of them would discuss principles of Euclid, and do math puzzles for pleasure.

However, their financial existence was precarious. There was only Grandad's city pay, and they never had any savings. In the late 1920s, his pay was cut to $26 a week, on which he had to support a family of six. Sometimes Grandmother would wring her hands over the bills, like Linda Loman in "Death of a Salesman," and he would say, "Now, Flossie -- consider the lilies of the field." Once she replied, "Don't talk to me about the lilies of the field. They don't have to wear shoes."

No one was to know how little money they had, especially not Grandad's sisters (who disliked my grandmother). At one desperate time, Grandmother took a part-time job as a dispatcher at Town Taxi, from 5 to 9 p.m. She loved it, and came home each night full of funny stories. But Grandad was mortified at the adverse reflection on his ability to provide (his mother-in-law said, "I never thought I'd see the day when my daughter would have to work"). Eventually, Grandmother gave it up.

When my mother graduated from Practical Arts High School in Roxbury, she got a job in Filene's Basement, picking up dresses dropped on the floor, for $12 a week. She gave her unopened pay envelopes to my grandmother. My mother writes, "She hated to take money from me, and always tried to give it back." (More to come. Previous installments appeared Sept. 19, 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 16.)

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