In 1986 Stratis Haviaras, then Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room of the Harvard College Library, founded a quarterly periodical called Erato. The purpose of this publication was to publicize the activities of the Poetry Room and create a new forum for discussion of current literary matters and events. The first issue of Erato, which was four pages long, featured a poem by Seamus Heaney, a short piece on Louis Simpson, and a news item from Harvard University Press. Tipped into the issue were three loose-leaf pages of book reviews, including reviews of works by Joseph Brodsky, Marguerite Duras, and Richard Ford.

Within three years the book review section had grown to over thirty pages and the publication was renamed Harvard Book Review. In 1992 Haviaras launched Harvard Review, a perfect-bound journal of over 200 pages, published semi-annually and incorporating the old Harvard Book Review. The purpose of the new journal was to foster the work of new writers, provide a forum for criticism of new literary works, and present the finest poetry and short fiction being written. In 2000 Haviaras retired from Harvard and Christina Thompson was appointed editor. At the same time, Houghton Library assumed administrative responsibility for the review.

In the more than two decades since it was launched, Harvard Review has emerged as a major American literary journal. Contributors to the journal include such well-known figures as Arthur Miller, John Updike, Jhumpa Lahiri, J. M. Coetzee, Seamus Heaney, Gore Vidal, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, Andrea Barrett, David Foster Wallace, and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as those making their literary debut. Recent elections have been anthologized in:

Best American Essays 2003, 2004, 2009, and 2010;
Best American Poetry 2002, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016;
Best American Short Stories 2003, 2005, and 2010;
Best American Mystery Stories 2006, 2014;
Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014;
Best Canadian Short Stories 2013;
Best New Poets 2008;
The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014;
and Pushcart Prize Anthology 2001, 2004, 2012,and 2013.