Penguin Modern Classics began in 1961, when an unconventional Penguin editor Tony Godwin decided that authors of his time were producing books that deserved classic status just as much as the works of Dickens or Homer. Many of the early titles published in the list (including Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) are still considered landmark classics.
Penguin Modern Classics have caused scandal and political change, inspired great films, and broken down barriers, whether social, sexual, or in the case of Ulysses, the boundaries of language itself. They remain the very best, most provocative, exciting, groundbreaking, inspiring, revolutionary works of the last 100 years an organic, ever-growing and ever-evolving list of books that we believe will continue to be read by generation after generation.
Before 1946 'classics' were mainly the domain of students and academics, without good, readable editions for everyone else. Penguin had previously dabbled in what were regarded as classics, with a batch of ten books published in 1935 that included Samuel Butler's Erewhon, and a 1938 series of ten Illustrated Classics including Swift's Gulliver's Travels, but with little success.
This was all to change after the Second World War. E. V. Rieu, a distinguished but obscure classicist and publisher, had whiled away odd idle hours of wartime service perfecting his translation of Homer's Odyssey and reading these efforts aloud to his wife Nelly, who encouraged him to complete the task and try to get it published.
"I began on the Odyssey three years before the Second World War started, and completed the first draft as France fell. Home Guard service intervened, and I could not finish the job till 1944. Even so, its revision was undertaken to the sound of v1 and v2 explosions and the crash of shattering glass an accompaniment which would have chimed in better with the more warlike Iliad, and which, I hope, is not reflected in my style. Actually, I went back to Homer, the supreme realist, who puts his magic finger every time on the essential qualities of things, by way of escape from the unrealities that surrounded us then and still surround us in a world of fantastically distorted values."
Ignoring the doubts of his colleagues, Allen Lane not only instantly agreed to publish the translation, but invited Rieu to edit a new series of Classics. It was a typical Lane decision: an instinctive leap, a certainty that an eager audience existed for new and accessible translations, one that Rieu's achievement had clearly created. It was not so much a gamble as an act of faith against all odds, one that any rational publisher guided solely by the balance sheet would have been unlikely to take.
Rieu's translation of the Odyssey became an immediate triumph and went on to sell some three million copies, occupying the position of the best-selling Penguin until rudely usurped fifteen years on by Lady Chatterley s Lover and, ultimately, Animal Farm. Why should this be? The answer lies partly in the qualities and ambitions of Rieu's translation and his objectives for the series:
"It is the editor's intention to commission translators who can emulate his own example and present the general reader with readable and attractive versions of the great writers books in modern English, shorn of the unnecessary difficulties and erudition, the archaic flavour and the foreign idiom that renders so many existing translations repellent to modern taste. Each volume will be issued at Penguin prices and the series will include, besides the Odyssey ... many other volumes covering a wide variety of literature ranging from ... Ancient Egypt to the closing years of the nineteenth century."
The Penguin Classics provided a unique combination: the verve of Rieu's translation combined with the Penguin name and aura. And it was this latter quality, just as much as the translation itself, which attracted the public. Penguin books were liked and trusted; they had been among the closest companions of many thousands throughout the war, guiding and helping them, assuming always rightly a deep interest and thirst for knowledge. And the post-war world was a different place, with the return to peace leading to hope for a better, more equal society. What this new Penguin edition of the Odyssey proclaimed was that this was a book that anyone everyone could, and should, read. The classics were no longer the exclusive province of the privileged few.
Rieu had told one of his sons, himself the translator of The Acts of the Apostles for the series, that he began by inviting dons to submit their work, but he found that very few of them could write decent English, and most were enslaved by the idiom of the original language. He turned to professional writers Robert Graves, Rex Warner, Dorothy L. Sayers authors who ranged from the scholarly to the idiosyncratic.
As the Penguin Classics grew in number, taking in works translated from Russian, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, German and a growing number of Middle and Far Eastern languages, so the authority of the series grew, and its readership subtly changed and developed. The Penguin imprint had been a major force in education, and especially adult education, since 1937, yet it would be thirty years before a new Penguin Education list finally acknowledged that fact. It was the same with the Classics. Betty Radice, Rieu's assistant and ultimate successor, was in no doubt:
"With his impeccable classical background Rieu had no thought of the translations from Greek and Latin becoming valuable teaching material ... I came from a different world, and in my tutoring had always used the best English versions available of a complete work before starting pupils on a set text. How can anyone appreciate Aeneid VI before something is known of the pattern of the whole great Aeneid? Classical teaching was changing, and I saw that there was a great opportunity for the classics to meet new demands if new titles were provided with line references, notes, indexes, bibliographies and fuller introductions, designed for use in teaching courses."
This growing realization meant that difficult decisions eventually had to be faced. Along with the perceived irrelevance of detailed scholarly apparatus (unlike the stance taken today in which the approach to critical apparatus is rigorous) was an early reluctance to translate verse into verse. But gradually the series moved steadily towards meeting the demands of scholars and teachers. Betty Radice led by example. In her own 1963 translation of The Letters of the Younger Pliny she demonstrated to her mentor that it was possible to present solid and authoritative scholarship in an appealing way. Her joint editor was Robert Baldick, a prodigious scholar, who, until his untimely death at the age of forty-four, made sure that translators were paid a proper fee for what is a specialist job, and that readers were introduced to the best of literature in translation that respected and did not betray the intentions of the author.
The importance of the academic market, particularly in the United States, was fully recognized during the 1960s, and a new generation of translators, many nurtured on the early Penguin Classics, joined those core contributors such as N.J. Dawood, Michael Grant, Philip Vellacott and J.M. Cohen whose translations were already beginning to achieve a classic status of their own.
In 1966 the Penguin English Library was inaugurated as a sister series to the Classics. Apart from aiming to provide a lively critical and historical introduction and notes to clarify the text, the editors main concern was to provide an authoritative text:
"The text of many English classics, particularly nineteenth-century novels, is in a scandalous condition, since publishers have often been content to reprint earlier editions, thus accumulating misprints and errors. The first duty of the editor of a volume in the Penguin English Library will be to decide which is the best text to print from and if necessary to establish a text."
In 1968 a further new series of non-fiction influential books in philosophy, religion, science, history, politics and economics in new editions for a modern audience Pelican Classics, joined by the now unmistakable black covers of the Penguin Classics.
These were joined later by a fourth series, the Penguin American Library, in the early 1980s (introduced at a time when many British publishers were cutting back their lists of American classics), with a commitment to maintain a representative range of American writing in an inexpensive but attractive form. Not only were titles such as Walden, Last of the Mohicans and Call of the Wild preserved for an international audience, but this close transatlantic co-operation brought the added bonus of the scholarship of Robert Fagles and Mark Musa to British readers in their translations of Homer and Dante, which continue on the list alongside those of Rieu and Sayers.
These four separate series all eventually merged to become the Penguin Classics in 1986, the most comprehensive library of world literature available from any paperback publisher: a position that has continued to be maintained and consolidated, supplemented with the Penguin Modern Classics, Classics Audiobooks and the Penguin Popular Classics.
In recent years there has been an expansion of translations from the European and vast Non-Western canon, and a broadening of the publishing of non-fiction. The series is now as committed to philosophy, theology, travel, politics, history and autobiography as it is to fiction and poetry. Editions of the major nineteenth-century English novelists Dickens, Austen, Hardy, the Brontλs, Gaskell are continually freshened and updated, and there has been a large growth in both the representation of vernacular English texts and twentieth-century authors in Penguin Classics, including D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells and Winston Churchill.
Recent innovations have included the launch of www.penguinclassics.com in 1999, which took the classics online to a wider global audience than ever before. In 2003 the Penguin Classics were given a new jacket look for the first time in nearly twenty years, while still retaining their distinctive black livery. There have also been an increasing number of hardback classics published, including Doctor Johnson's Dictionary and an acclaimed new translation of War and Peace.
In January 2006 a brand new strand of publishing, the Red Classics, has been added to the Classics stable. With authors ranging from Dickens and Steinbeck to Updike and Donna Tartt, their aim is to take Classics back to basics, stripping them of critical apparatus and giving readers stories that begin on page one much like E. V. Rieu's original vision for the series back in 1946.
When asked during the 1960s which of his many publishing achievements he was most proud of, Allen Lane had no hesitation in nominating the Penguin Classics. For over half a century the series has grown and developed far beyond Rieu's original conception, but without compromising the ideals of the early translators and editors.
Now, with Penguin Classics, Modern Classics and Red Classics, this world famous series consists of over 1,200 titles ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And it is still just as committed to making the widest range of the best books from around the world available to millions, in editions that are up to date, authoritative and readable and constantly redefining the idea of what makes a 'classic'. Continual film and television adaptations of classic books, and the fact that in the BBC's 'Big Read' survey 32 titles in the top 100 are available in Penguin Classics, shows that the desire among readers for the best literature of several thousand years and countless cultures is stronger than ever.