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.

Contributors to Harvard Review include such well-known figures as Andrea Barrett, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, David Foster Wallace, John Updike, Seamus Heaney, and Gore Vidal. Pulitzer Prize-winners Jhumpa Lahiri and Paul Harding both made their literary debut in the journal. Selections from Harvard Review have appeared in many anthologies, including: Best American Poetry (2002, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017); Best American Essays (2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2018); Best American Short Stories (2003, 2005, 2010); Best American Mystery Stories (2006, 2014); Best American Science and Nature Writing (2014); Best American Travel Writing (2018); PEN America Best Debut Short Stories (2017); Best New Poets (2008); Best Canadian Short Stories (2013); The O. Henry Prize Stories (2014); and the Pushcart Prize Anthology (2001, 2004, 2012, 2013).