In Quotations

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BRECKINRIDGE, WHAT DO YOU THINK of the Dred Scott decision and the rights of the South in the Territories now?”

This earnest-sounding question would not on the face of it seem to betray what Douglas Southall Freeman described as the “rasping, mordant wit” whose sting Gen. Jubal Early’s subordinates knew all too well. But it does. August 1864 found the Confederates, badly whipped by Phil Sheridan, retreating through the Shenandoah Valley in a grueling night march. Early, who had bitterly opposed secession, spotted his fellow general John Breckinridge, who’d been all for it, fast asleep in the saddle. He spurred his horse, trotted up alongside his exhausted colleague, and barked out his sardonic inquiry.

This quote and its context are provided by a brand-new reference book, the American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations , compiled by Margaret Miner and Hugh Rawson. I think it’s both a valuable work and an engaging one. Rather than arrange the entries by author, the editors have marshaled their choices by category and, within each category, by date. Thus, under “Civil War, The” (a big category, for, as we discover Gertrude Stein said, “There will never be anything in America more interesting than the Civil War never”) you can follow the course of events chronologically as they unfolded from William Henry Seward’s 1858 “irrepressible conflict” speech onward.

This gives one the inspiriting sense of absorbing history in a sort of telegraphic staccato, while the authors’ annotations are, as with the Early gibe, valuable and interesting. On the very first page, for instance, under “Action & Doing,” we meet Mary Moody Emerson, whose motto was “Always do what you are afraid to do” and who was “a famous eccentric: just four feet, three inches tall, she slept in a coffin-shaped bed. She had, however, a large spirit, and was an expansive, sophisticated religious thinker. She inspired her nephew to trust his own ideas, enthusiasms, and perceptions.” The nephew was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, we learn a little farther along in the section, may have inspired the great counterculture mantra of the 1960s when he wrote, “But do your thing, and I shall know you” (although perhaps it was Chaucer, in “The Clerk’s Tale”: “Ye been oure lord; doeth with youre owene thyng”). And then there is an astonishing statement from Ulysses S. Grant in the painful last year of his life: “I am a verb.”

But this book has something more to offer than quick, satisfying epigrams. Every era loves its jargon, and ours is no exception. A couple of years ago the newly appointed president of the University of Pennsylvania explained her mission to a New York Times reporter. It was, of course, to “empower” the students (the word empower was to 1994 what proactive is to the present minute) and “to build a seamless interface between the theoretical and the applied.” Now that means nothing at all, but in fact it’s not even an especially egregious example of this sort of cant; you will likely read or hear something very similar in the next day or two.

The quotation dictionary, brisk and trenchant, is a bracing corrective. Whether it’s Dwight Eisenhower musing on Senate Majority Leader William Knowland (“There seems to be no final answer to the question, ‘How stupid can you get?’”) or Carl Whitaker on the family (“Every marriage is a battle between two families struggling to reproduce themselves”) or Stephen Decatur on Capt. James Lawrence, killed in the fight with the Shannon (“It is part of a sailor’s life to die well”), every succinct phrase reminds us what a sharp and supple thing our American language is. The whole book is a highly enjoyable sermon on the virtue of precision in expression—or, as Mark Twain said (you can find it under “Language & Words”), “The difference between the almost -right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”