The Long, Happy Life Of ‘bartlett’s Quotations’


NO ONE IN 1855 could have foreseen that a modest little volume of 258 pages, bound in cardboard and the size of a postcard, would mushroom into the immense tome of 1600 pages that serves as a cornerstone of most libraries in the English-speaking world. Familiar Quotations was the creation of John Bartlett, for whom—to paraphrase Melville’s remark about the whaleship being Ishmael’s Yale and Harvard—the University Book Store in Cambridge was college.


Bartlett was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1820, graduated at sixteen from the local public school, and turned from the family tradition of seafaring to bookselling. At twenty-nine he became the proprietor of the University Book Store, which gave him his start. He had already developed a reputation for erudition, which caused professors and students alike to “ask John Bartlett” about a book, an author, or a quotation. He found it useful to keep a commonplace book, which became the basis for a collection of the most popular quotations arranged chronologically and with the sources given. As a service to his friends and clients, he published it himself at age thirty-five in an edition of one thousand copies. His brief preface told the reader that “the object of this work is to show, to some extent, the obligations our language owes to various authors for numerous phrases and familiar quotations which have become ‘household words.’”

The first edition of Familiar Quotations quoted from 169 authors. The Bible and Shakespeare took up about a third of the text; the balance was chiefly English poetry—with Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and Byron leading the way. There was a scattering of prose from Milton, Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Macaulay, and one maxim from La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. No Blake, Shelley, or various other authors who could not have been much upon the tongue in the mid-nineteenth century. A mere handful of Americans was included—Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a neighbor), James Russell Lowell (close friend and whist partner)—and a line each from “Hail, Columbia,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “The Old Oaken Bucket. There were no quotations from Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, or even Emerson (who made it by the third edition three years later). Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass that same year, and Thoreau’s Walden had appeared the year before, but neither would be in Familiar Quotations until the tenth edition, in 1914.

Bartlett’s venture was a success. In 1863 he joined Little, Brown and Company, which issued the fourth edition of his book that same year and has published all subsequent editions. In 1878 Bartlett became a senior partner of Little, Brown and edited six more enlarged editions of Familiar Quotations . Harvard awarded him an honorary degree, A.M., in 1871, and he was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1889 he retired from the firm to work on his Complete Concordance to Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works and Plays , which was published in 1894. He died in 1905, at the age of eighty-five.

BARTLETT’S SUCCESSOR , Nathan Haskell Dole, poet, editor, and translator from the French and Russian, edited the tenth edition, published in 1914 and now grown six times the size of the first edition. His criteria, like Bartlett s, were that quotations have the “seal of popular approval and be “distinctly worthy of perpetuation.” Dole sought to add new quotations “from the best writers of their day. ” He was most respectful of Bartlett and wrote in his preface that “it is not always easy for Elisha to wear the mantle of Elijah; but it is Elisha’s business to carry on his predecessor’s work in the same spirit.” Among many new authors now included (besides Thoreau and Whitman) were Lewis Carroll, W. S. Gilbert, Nietzsche, Shaw, the novelists George Eliot and George Moore (but no Hawthorne, Melville, or Henry James), the poets Swinburne, Hardy, Stevenson, Housman, Kipling, Yeats (with one quote), but still not Blake or Emily Dickinson.


By the eleventh edition, published in 1937, Elijah’s mantle had passed to the writer, poet, and editor Christopher Morley and the associate editor Louella D. Everett, a noted quotation-finder for The New York Times who had also published anthologies and was especially knowledgeable in popular light verse. Of their joint editorship, Morley wrote in his preface: “One of the pleasures of re-editing has been that one collaborator, by long experience with inquiries for the affable familiar ghosts of print, knows acutely what readers want; and the other believes himself to know what they ought to want. They have striven for a happy compromise.”