Harvard Classics, Volume 22, The Odyssey

Some of the volumes in the Harvard Classics are such obvious texts to include that there really isn’t much to say about them. The Odyssey is one of the most important texts in human history, and it is worth reading repeatedly.

This was my second time reading The Odyssey, but it was still very worthwhile to have read again. The scenes, emotions and characters are integral parts of how Western man understands himself. Odysseus is both physically and mentally far above the other men that surround him by the story. Tempered by twenty years of hardship and strife, Odysseus is a very different sort of hero than is typical of storytelling today, and that’s what makes The Odyssey stand out so much. Odysseus’ triumph, the infiltration of Troy in the wooden horse, is well in the past. The adventures of Odysseus are recounted in The Odyssey as an extended flashback, but only make up about a quarter of the narrative.

At its core The Odyssey is about a great man struggling through the part of a hero’s journey that is usually portrayed as easy and triumphant. Events home in Ithaca didn’t stay static for twenty years while Odysseus was off adventuring, and a new generation of men rose with the expectation of influence and power. Odysseus’ journey ends with him sneaking into his own kingdom, plotting to get inside his own home, and slaughtering the countrymen that have wronged him in his absence by living off his estate and trying to marry his wife. This resolution immediately threatens to stir up a civil war before Zeus intercedes to close the door on the conflicts first stirred up with Helen’s abduction.

Odysseus doesn’t get a triumphal return. His wife, his son, his father, his dog, Athena, and a few old servants are even happy about his return, while everyone else had moved on with what they presumed was a new status quo.

The Odyssey truly is one of the most important works in our literary canon and it is also one of the most accessible works with numerous high quality translations. This is one that I not only recommend you read, but it is one you must read.

The next volume of the Harvard Classics continues the nautical theme with Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr, an account of his voyage as a sailor aboard a trading vessel. Following Dana are some of Burke’s more famous works, then a selection of works from John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. From there is a collection of Spanish, French and German drama and a two-volume collection of English and American essays.

At this point, the Harvard Classics includes very few remaining ancient or medieval sources. The main focus for the rest of the Harvard Classics is the Western European tradition from 1500-1850. I’m not sure whether this will increase or decrease the rate at which I’ve been working through the volumes. At my current pace of about one volume every three weeks, I should finish in about 18 months.

Harvard Classics, Volume 21: I Promessi Sposi

The most recent volume of the Harvard Classics is the only modern fiction novel included in the set of 50 volumes. While there is a whole set of 20 volumes dubbed the “Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction”, I Promessi Sposi’s inclusion in the original set points to its significance and quality. Alessandro Mazoni’s 1827 work comes in second to Dante as the most important work in the Italian canon, and for good reason. I Promessi Sposi is a masterful historical fiction novel that blends the personal conflicts of lower class Milanese with the backdrop of war, pestilence and famine.

I Promessi Sposi starts with a simple personal conflict. Late at night, a local clergyman is accosted by ruffians, warning him of the dire consequences should he perform the wedding of the two protagonists. This conflict, however, eventually leads to a pageant of personal struggle for both protagonists as they separate and find themselves in a series of ever-escalating predicaments.

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