The Penguin Classics list was launched in 1946 with the publication of E V Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey - a work which has since achieved iconic status in its own right, its familiar cover showing up as a kind of visual shorthand for classical learning or epic ambition in some unexpected places (including Mike Leigh’s 1998 film Naked). At first the ‘Classics’ referred only to translated works, including various texts, from Ancient Greece and Rome, right up to nineteenth century French literature. But in 1986 books other than texts-in-translation began to be included, as the list merged with the Penguin English Library, the Pelican Classics and the Penguin American Library to form today’s more diverse collection of texts and translations.
The Penguin Classics archive holds the editorial papers of the list from its inception, as well as the personal papers of Betty Radice, who took over from E V Rieu as editor of the Penguin Classics. It is a rich resource through which to explore crucial questions for classical scholarship – questions about the aesthetic and cultural value of translations, as well as the economic and academic forces which shape them.
Robert Crowe is currently doing doctoral research on the archive, under the supervision of Dr Ika Willis. This research will contribute to our understanding of the way Penguin understood and carried out its democratising mission with regard to the formation and development of the classics list, as well as to our broader understanding of translation and reception.