In 1945, a Harvard committee issued the extraordinarily influential report General Education in a Free Society, also known as the Red Book (or, often, the Redbook, which shouldn’t be confused with the women’s magazine, though that would be amusing). Issued under the leadership of, and with an introduction from, Harvard President James Bryant Conant, the report has received a great deal of attention from intellectual historians and from historians of education, so I will not repeat their labors here. What I do want to do is look at an earlier Conant project that I stumbled onto in the long digital corridors of HathiTrust.
What I found are two reading lists in American history and literature from the Committee on Extra-Curricular Reading published for 1937 and 1938. The only reference I have found to this project in recent scholarship is a passing one in Wendy Wall’s (excellent) Inventing the American Way: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement. Debuting concurrently with the new doctoral program in the “History of American Civilization,” the Harvard lists were tied to exams that could be taken for monetary prizes to be bestowed upon, as The Crimson put it, “the top men.” (The prize was $100, or about $1650 in today’s dollars—not bad! The Crimson also noted tartly that “those who are not fortunate enough to receive the prizes will be given certificates merely for passing the examinations.” Guided by Howard Mumford Jones, F. O. Matthiessen, Frederick Merk, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and Samuel Eliot Morison (among others), the lists and examinations were also supplemented with public lectures; two sets of these sponsored lectures that I found in a brief scan of The Crimson were given by Felix Frankfurter, speaking to the topic, “The Court and Mr. Justice Holmes,” and by Bernard De Voto, on “The American Historical Novel.”
The reading lists were aimed especially at undergraduates who were not pursuing courses in U.S. history, although copies of the reading list were also available to the public free of charge. My colleague Tim will be especially interested to note that Conant stated that he hoped the lists would “prove that an individual may continue his education throughout life by disciplined reading on an informal basis… It is an attempt to counteract the idea that the only road to knowledge lies through formal instruction in regular college courses.” Conant said elsewhere, “A true appreciation of this country’s past might be the common denominator among educated men which would enable them to face the future united and unafraid.” As Harvard historian Crane Brinton wrote in The American Scholar, “Nothing less than the genuine command of a whole culture is aimed at.”
The 1937 list included some 290 books, but the exam covered only 24, asking students to write essays on themes to be found in books such as the Beards’ Rise of American Civilization, Henry Adams’s Education, Francis Parkman’s Pioneers of France in the New World, Lewis Mumford’s The Golden Day, and Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln, as well as Walden, Franklin’s Autobiography, Leaves of Grass, and the novels Moby-Dick, The House of the Seven Gables, and Henry James’s The American.
I am not quite sure what happened to these examinations; Brinton’s American Scholar article noted that Harvard had funding for this program for five years, but no further reading lists were issued after 1938 to the best of my knowledge, and January 1939 is the last announcement in The Crimson that I found for the bestowal of the prizes, named for William H. Bliss, though that article indicated that a second round of exams would be conducted that April.
There is much one can say here about this little chapter in U.S. intellectual history: a sort of bridge between Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Harvard Classics and the full flowering of American Civilization/American Studies programs after World War II, these exams and reading lists probably have more symbolic significance than they had real influence. But I offer them here for you to peruse the contents of the lists—evaluating canons from the past is always a fun activity for intellectual historians—and in the hopes that other researchers may find them useful!
 I can’t let the title of the Crimson article pass without comment: “Unveiling the Untouchable”—the article noted that “with the glorification of [Frankfurter] into a public figure, the immediate Harvard community is bound to suffer, for no one can be a household word and yet remain readily accessible for students or the public to tap the vast fountain of knowledge that is surely there. There was great danger that Professor Frankfurter, with the necessary anonymity that must cloak anyone who enters carefully hooded against the press, both the White House and Hyde Park by the side door, would soon vanish into the clouds and become an ‘informed source close to the President.’” Or, in other words, public service is great and all, but what about Harvard?