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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
And during every revision, the editors discover old familiar quotations that somehow never got into Bartlett. Some of these are “Love of wisdom [philosophy] the guide of life,” the Greek phrase for the Phi Beta Kappa Society (John Heath); “… in politics the middle way is none at all” (John Adams); “God is dead” (Nietzsche); “There’s nothing surer,/The rich get rich and the poor get poorer,/In the meantime, in between time,/Ain’t we got fun” (Gus Kahn); “Life is unfair” (John F. Kennedy); “I have a dream” (Martin Luther King); “This land is your land, this land is my land” (Woody Guthrie); “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever” (Chief Joseph); “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him” (Booker T. Washington—attributed). Blacks are better represented in the latest edition, as are North American Indians and women. Altogether we added more than four hundred authors, among them Queen Hatshepsut, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Giordano Bruno, Tecumseh, George Sand, Frederick Douglass, Frederick Law Olmsted, Susan B. Anthony, Cavafy, Apollinaire, Knute Rockne, Kenyatta, Cole Porter, Brecht, Borges, George Seferis, Malraux, Anaïs Nin, Moss Hart, Pablo Neruda, Pope John Paul II, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Steve Biko.
People often ask, “How do you go about getting quotes?” There are various ways, the best, I think, being to list famous or important people not yet in Familiar Quotations or inadequately represented, and then to go through their chief works. When in the course of reading one finds a good quote with the author mentioned but not the source, the problem of identification is challenging. There was, for instance, a quotation from Flaubert that I read in Graham Greene’s autobiography: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. ” How I wanted to include that, but where could I find it in the extensive prose and fictional works of Flaubert? I nearly despaired, but in the course of reading Madame Bovary (not even mentioned in Familiar Quotations ), the sentence leaped forth from the page—serendipity!
AND SERENDIPITY served beautifully more than once. One quotation fascinated me: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” It was from Henry James, I knew—but where? I was prepared to simply put it in with the credit Attributed —a cop-out, of course. Then one day I read an article by Truman Capote, who quoted this passage and said he thought it came from The Middle Years . So I dashed off to the library and got hold of James s autobiographical work. I read it all the way through—but found no wonderful quote. Then I chanced to read the editor s note at the end—the title was taken, he said, from James s short story of the same name. So back to the stacks I went for the collected stories, turned to “The Middle Years, and on the next-to-last page there was the quote!
One more such example: I had put into the fourteentli edition—with an inadequate credit, because I had read it in The New York Times obituary of Albert Camus—a beautiful, stirring quote: “In the depth of winter I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” Years later, working on the fifteenth edition, I searched throughout the works of Camus for the true source of this quote, without success. Then one evening, on an impulse, I took down from my bookcase a recent collection of his essays to read for pleasure. I was reading one of them, Return to Tipasa , about his coming back to a beloved place in Algeria where he spent summers in his youth. Something about the text made me alert—and lo, there toward the end was the quotation—more serendipity.
FINALLY THE GALLEYS arrived to be read, corrected—and to include at the last minute such finds as “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” from the “Three Wise Monkeys,” which, incredibly, appears in no other quotation book.The fifteenth edition was published on time for Little, Brown’s f25th anniversary.
A few years ago the Tavern Club in Boston did a skit on Familiar Quotations created by the late Andrew Oliver. It was called “Mrs. Bartlett’s Midnight-mare” and is an epic made up from real quotes: