A flatlay of five Penguin Classics covers against a red background.

The original published covers of five iconic Penguin Classics. Image: Alexandra Francis / Penguin

This year marks both the 75th anniversary of the Penguin Classics and the 60th anniversary of the Penguin Modern Classics series. Together, these remarkable lists form the largest and richest library of world literature on the planet: more than 3,000 titles have been published as either Penguin Classics or Modern Classics over the years, but here are five landmark titles, which chart the series’ extraordinary history.

The Odyssey by Homer (Originally pub. Penguin Classics, 1946)

On chilly nights, amidst the wail of air raid sirens and the whine of doodlebugs, a man stood on the roof of Birkbeck College in central London, scanning the skyline for fires. Emile Victor Rieu passed the time on these long, lonely wartime shifts, translating and re-translating Homer’s Odyssey. Towards the end of the Second World War, he submitted his translation to Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, and Lane not only accepted the translation, he appointed Rieu general editor of a new Penguin series: the ‘Penguin Classics’. “Something important has happened,” reported Reynolds’ News in January 1946: “There is a new translation of The Odyssey, a very contemporary translation, and it costs only one shilling. This is revolutionary.”

Rieu’s Odyssey sold over three million copies. It was the bestselling Penguin book until it was overtaken by Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. The second title in the series was H. N. P. Sloman’s translation of Maupassant’s Boule de Suif and Other Stories; the third was The Theban Plays by Sophocles, translated by E. F. Watling. “The Penguin Classics, though I designed them to give pleasure even more than instruction, have been hailed as the greatest educative force of the 20th Century,” said Rieu, at his retirement party in 1964. “And far be it for me to quarrel with that encomium, for there is no one whom they have educated more than myself.”

Together with The Iliad, The Odyssey is one of the foundation texts of European literature. It follows the fortunes of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his journey home from the Trojan War. His epic voyage takes him and his crew as far as the western edge of the world: on the way they encounter Polyphemus the Cyclops, Circe the Sorceress, the mellifluous, carnivorous sirens, the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, Calypso the nymph and the lovely Nausicaa. It takes Odysseus ten years to get home to his wife Penelope.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (Originally pub. Penguin Modern Classics, 1961)

In January 1961, Allen Lane appointed the maverick bookseller Tony Godwin as Penguin’s fiction editor, and Godwin went on to become editor-in-chief. He decided to diversify Penguin’s fiction list: he retained orange covers for contemporary titles and introduced a new design to distinguish the finest literature of recent decades, creating a series he called ‘Penguin Modern Classics’.

“This new Penguin series is intended to bring the very best of modern literature to the reading public,” ran the advertisement. The first five new titles were issued in April 1961: The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder, Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million by Nathanael West, Ronald Firbank’s Valmouth and Other Stories, Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

At the age of 17, Lula Carson Smith left Georgia on a steamship to study the piano in New York; instead, she pursued a literary career. After a marriage to Reeves McCullers, she had a long-term friendship with the striptease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, with whom she moved into February House on Brooklyn Heights. McCullers was plagued by ill health: she suffered three strokes before she was 31, which left her paralysed on one side, and she drank continually. Her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, tells the story of the solitary, deaf-mute John Singer, in a small town in the Deep South, who becomes the silent confidant of four unlikely and equally troubled characters, including ‘Mick’ Kelly, a tomboyish young girl who dreams of buying a piano, and Dr Benedict Copeland, an idealistic African American doctor.

The Letters of the Younger Pliny by The Younger Pliny (Originally pub. Penguin Classics, 1963)

Born on the Yorkshire coast, Betty Dawson won a scholarship to Oxford, where she met her future husband, Italo de Lisle Radice. After the birth of their third child, her doctor found her reading The Odyssey in Greek. “I put it down as soon as the baby whimpers,” she said.

In the late 1950s, she submitted a proposal to E. V. Rieu for a Penguin Classics edition of the letters of Pliny the Younger. Rieu not only accepted, he invited Radice to become the assistant editor of Penguin Classics. The following year saw the appointment of Tony Godwin, and Radice soon found herself struggling to keep the peace between “the Edwardian old fogey” and “the half educated young upstart”, as they termed each other. When Godwin made the executive decision to redesign Penguin Classics, Rieu retired in protest, and Radice succeeded him as editor, a position she held for the next 20 years.

Pliny the Younger, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, was adopted by his uncle, Pliny the Elder, in the late first century AD, and inherited the latter’s wealth and estates when he was 17. He owned a great number of villas, including two on Lake Como, which he called ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’ because one was high in the hills and one was low on the shoreline. Towards the end of his life he represented the Emperor Trajan as the imperial governor of Bithynia-Pontus (modern Turkey), where he died. He prepared nine volumes of his letters for publication, which reveal an account of the eruption of Vesuvius, descriptions of early Christians (“a degenerate sort of cult”), a portrait of his celebrated uncle and evidence of friendships with many of the leading literary figures of the day, such as Tacitus and Suetonius. Radice dedicates her translation to E. V. Rieu: magistro discipula, or, “for the master from the pupil.”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (Originally pub. Penguin English Library, 1965)

In September 1965, Godwin introduced the ‘Penguin English Library’ series, designed to be a sister series to Penguin Classics. It was edited by David Daiches, the first Professor of English at the University of Sussex. “The format, appearance, and price will be similar,” wrote Daiches, in his note to contributors. “The audience to aim at is the intelligent general reader who has always meant to read the English Classics, but has either never got round to all of these or at least not looked at them since his school days.” The first title was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and the series was a success. When Radice died, the decision was made to amalgamate the Penguin English Library into Penguin Classics. It was the first time that the latter series had included English language titles and so, in 1985, Penguin Classics became the most comprehensive library of world literature available from any paperback publisher.

“It is a fiend of a book – an incredible monster,” wrote Dante Gabriel Rossetti. “The action is laid in hell, – only it seems places and people have English names there.” In Wuthering Heights, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange becomes lost in a snowstorm on the bleak Yorkshire moors and seeks shelter at a lonely house called Wuthering Heights. During his visit he starts to unravel the tumultuous events that once took place there between the brooding, swarthy Heathcliff and the passionate Catherine Earnshaw. It is the only novel by Emily Brontë, younger sister of Charlotte Brontë, and was published under a pseudonym exactly a year before Emily died of tuberculosis at the age of 30.

Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison (Originally pub. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 2000)

To match the expanded and expanding Penguin Classics list, the Penguin Modern Classics series was given a facelift in May 1989. It was renamed ‘Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics’, Penguin’s back catalogue was scoured and many more titles were added to the series during the 1990s. “The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics list offers a wonderfully rich and varied mixture, of tragedy and comedy, of poetry and prose, with some fact and more fiction,” wrote Margaret Drabble in 1992.

At the turn of a new century, however, the Twentieth-Century Classics needed a new name. Editor Simon Winder was brought in to overhaul the series’ he wanted to reposition the list as “a series to be enjoyed, rather than something that is good for you.” In February and March 2000, Winder introduced 80 fresh titles, including Money by Martin Amis, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr and Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison.

Ellison was born in Oklahoma and worked as a busboy, shoeshine boy, hotel waiter and dentist’s assistant. In 1936, he settled in Harlem, New York City; he met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and began writing stories and articles, including his masterpiece, Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award and inspired Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. Ellison went on to teach at a number of universities and lived for a time in Rome. He also spent years writing a second novel that he never completed: when he died in 1994, he left behind 2,000 manuscript pages, which his friend and biographer, John F. Callahan, condensed to 300 and published posthumously.

‘Juneteenth’, its title, is America’s ‘second Independence Day’, a national holiday that commemorates the emancipation from slavery in Texas on 19 June 1865. The novel takes the form of a conversation between the racist Senator Adam Sunraider and a black Baptist minister, Daddy Hickman, a former jazz trombonist, who raised the orphaned Sunraider. These two men confront their shared past and the events surrounding one particular Juneteenth celebration.


The Penguin Modern Classics Book 
by Henry Eliot is out now courtesy of Particular Books.

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