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The Long, Happy Life Of ‘bartlett’s Quotations’
It is the repository of the wisdom and poetry of the world. Its editor tells the story of how it came into being and how it stays there .
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
FOR THE FIRST TIME the editors removed quotations no longer relevant or familiar, a delicate task that since then has been performed for every edition. The editors added not only to twentieth-century quotations but also to every period from ancient times on, reflecting the erudition of Morley in particular and possibly a broadening cultural outlook of the nation as well. Between 1914 and 1937 the extraordinary post-World War I age had flowered, and the changes in the text of the eleventh edition are more striking than in any other. Besides such contemporary authors as Auden, Eliot, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Willa Gather, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Will Rogers, and Ezra Pound, authors of earlier eras were added: Blake, Hawthorne, Melville, the Jameses at last, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Sara Orne Jewett, Hesiod, Aesop, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Omar Khayyám.
In 1937 one editor explained: “We have tried to make literary power the criterion, rather than the width and vulgarity of fame.”
Morley’s 1937 preface asks at the outset the question every Bartlett editor must try to answer: “What makes words memorable?” His theory of selection was broader than John Bartlett’s. “Previous editions adhered, almost with pedantry, to the touchstones of familiarity,” he wrote. “This edition is not so stringent: we have tried to make literary power the criterion rather than the width and vulgarity of fame.” “Literary power” is so much more a matter of personal opinion than “familiarity” that this new approach tempted future editors to exploit their literary passions. Restraint has been necessary to keep the volume from either becoming idiosyncratic or growing into an anthology.
Morley thought that his eleventh edition would last until 1960, but World War II and the atomic age necessitated an updating. “Man … was saying words that had to be recorded,” Morley realized. So in 1948 the twelfth edition appeared, to which Morley and Everett added new quotations from (among many others) Churchill, Hitler, Einstein, Truman, the Charter of the United Nations, Douglas MacArthur, and Walter Lippmann. “The duty of stoical old Bartlett,” Morley wrote, “is to hand on, without fear or favor, what looks to be most memorable of men’s joy, suspicion and dismay,” a policy that has been followed ever since.
By 1952 Little, Brown was anticipating the centennial edition of Familiar Quotations , but this time the publishers decided to try their hand at putting together the new edition themselves, without depending on outside editors. Two not particularly literary officers of Little, Brown took on the task.
That year a friend of mine was offered the job of processing the deletions and collating the new quotations, but she wanted to leave and get married, and proposed that I apply for the job. I found myself in possession of a copy of the Morley twelfth edition, all marked up for removal of quotes by the two Little, Brown editors, who, I was told, would supply the new quotations. I set to work and soon discovered the editors’ unfamiliarity with many of the great quotations. The passage in Richard II beginning “This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,/This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,” and including “This happy breed of men” and “This precious stone set in the silver sea,” was marked to go because, as the marginal note said, it was too “chauvinistic.” I wrote a memo declaring that this was one of Shakespeare s noblest, most renowned passages. The reply came, “If you think it’s familiar, keep it in.” Another line they wanted out as “sentimental” was Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall,” which I also saved. And so it went.
Luckily for the centennial edition, a brilliant copy editor, Jack Rackliffe, who had been an assistant in the English department at Harvard, came aboard. In the course of his reading and correcting of texts in the new edition, he pointed out a number of omissions, from Shakespeare on down to Yeats. Thus the editing of the centennial edition was turned upside down, with the fellow on the bottom emerging as the true savant and arbiter, with me, the tyro who was cutting her teeth on quotations, in the middle, and with the casual, uncritical editors at the top.
IN THE END a respectable centennial edition was published in 1955 (there were some errors of course, for as Samuel Johnson put it, “Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true”). In typing up the Preamble of the Constitution (included for the first time), my eye jumped over one of the important phrases, and instead of “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,” I typed an elision: “provide for the common welfare.” No one picked it up until a reader wrote in to ask what version of the Constitution we had used.