When Henry James wrote, “It’s a complex fate, being an American,” he must have had the subject of Alex Beam’s book in mind. James would have savored its opening scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where on April 15, 1952, a dinner was held by the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica to launch “The Great Books of the Western World.” Though Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and other celebrities were present, the star of the show was a group of fifty-four books resting on a dais. Referring to them from his podium, a speaker proclaimed, “Here are the sources of our being.”

What was in this collection of books? “Nine years in the making,” Alex Beam explains, and “stuffed with 443 works by seventy-four white male authors,” it was designed to “encompass all of Western knowledge from Homer to Freud.” The publishers hoped for a wide audience, and while there is nothing outlandish about a waitress, truck driver, or even college student reading Plato, it is fantastic to imagine anyone reading, or even opening one of these books. Anyone who has seen them can vouch for Beam’s assertion that “The Great Books of the Western World were in fact icons of unreadability—32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type.” Against all odds (though thanks in part to “unscrupulous, foot-in-the-door salesmen”), the set eventually sold a million copies and caused Time magazine to claim, “Great Books has switched many Americans—at least temporarily—from the works of Spillane to those of Spinoza and St. Augustine.” A genuine postwar fad, it survives today as “sort of an underground thing,” in the words of a woman in Maine who still hosts a Great Books week once a year.

The Great Books movement was fed by many streams, but it owed most to the glamorous figure of Robert Maynard Hutchins, whose face was on the cover of Time magazine twice, in 1935 as the “boy president” of the University of Chicago, and in 1949 when, still glamorous but no longer young, he was rumored to be in line for a seat on Roosevelt’s Supreme Court. His political ambitions were disappointed, yet his power in the academic world of his day was unique and probably unrepeatable. He was a Romantic to the core, not only tall, handsome, and married to a beautiful sculptress, but also besotted with educational idealism. The idealism was a reaction against Yale, where he had been a brilliant undergraduate and later dean of the law school. A minister’s son and a scholarship boy, he found the Ivy League decadent and summed up his feelings in an essay titled “The Autobiography of an Uneducated Man.” He loved to provoke, and his writings and speeches were often merely rhetorical, yet at bottom he believed that contemplation was the best use of the mind, and that Truth with a capital T would allow itself to be contemplated. In arriving at this Platonic view he alienated not just the Ivy League, which he thought was anti-intellectual, but also educational reformers like the philosopher John Dewey, who was Hutchins’s nemesis. Dewey thought that Truth was a waste of time and that education should focus on practical knowledge and mastery of facts; Hutchins wrote that “facts are the core of an anti-intellectual curriculum.”

He found an intellectual soul mate in Mortimer J. Adler, who also disliked Dewey and thought that undergraduates needed fewer facts and more “ideas,” especially those of Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians. Adler was short, volatile, and regarded even by his admirers as slightly out of his mind. Over time the two men evolved into what Beam calls “an intellectual Mutt and Jeff act, with Hutchins playing the stern protective parent and Adler the bumptious and unruly child.” At the University of Chicago they team-taught a famous course of “Readings in the Classics of Western European Literature” that was the prototype of the Great Books discussion groups, attracting students like Susan Sontag and Katharine Meyer, later to become Kay Graham of Washington Post fame. From an article about Hutchins in Collier’s magazine, the young Sontag imagined Chicago as “this eccentric place, which didn’t have a football team, and where they talked about Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas day and night. I thought, that’s for me.”

The personalities behind the Great Books make the story both “abstruse” and “fundamentally Midwestern,” as Beam puts it. The third member of the triumvirate was William Benton, the advertising pioneer who invented the cue card (as in LAUGH! APPLAUD!), owned the Muzak Corp. for a decade, and eventually became a U. S. senator. Benton came up with the sales plan, and proposed that the books come with an “idea index” so that “you could look up ‘justice’ in the idea index and see what Aristotle, John Locke, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky had to say about the subject...without having to pull their tomes off the shelf!” This resulted in the “Syntopicon,” a list of 102 ideas that Mortimer Adler culled from the books, paying University of Chicago grad students (among them Saul Bellow) $2 an hour to compile them on index cards. Readers found the list of ideas unhelpful, the real need being for footnotes, essays, or, in short, some historical guidance to what Locke, Milton, Hegel, and the other “greats” meant to their contemporaries. This information was withheld because of the dogmatic belief that a truly “great” book speaks directly to the reader. It must happen occasionally, yet the refusal to give contemporary readers any break whatsoever suggests a kind of literary Protestantism in which no priests are allowed between readers and the sacred texts. This idea survives at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, Shimer College in Illinois, and less radically in the “core curriculum” for undergraduates at Columbia and the University of Chicago.

The books that were launched with such fanfare in 1952 stopped selling in the 1970s and now languish in warehouses or on eBay, where Alex Beam acquired his from a seller who wrote, “You are bidding on a set of fifty-four volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World.... I doubt these have ever been opened or read.” The idea worked “at the time” because enough people were hospitable to the notion of timeless truths capable of disclosing themselves through a set of books. The seller on eBay is perhaps more representative of our day, in which “users” of screens have replaced readers of pages (Hutchins would have seen the practical, utilitarian bias of computers as another victory for John Dewey’s ideas). The story of the Great Books is indeed abstruse, or complex as Henry James would say, full of twists and turns and odd characters, yet in Beam’s hands it becomes an intellectual comedy, gracefully written and tinged with cultural melancholy.

Peter Schwendener is a writer, jazz pianist, and piano teacher who lives near Chicago. His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in the American Scholar, TriQuarterly, the Chicago Tribune, the New Criterion, the Chicago Reader, and other publications.

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Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: View Contents
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