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The Long, Happy Life of ‘Bartlett’s Quotations’

July 2024
12min read

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 .

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.”

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.

Eight years passed, and Little, Brown decided it was time for a new edition. The former editors had left, and the chairman of the board came across my blizzard of memos in the files. Perhaps I might do? I was sounded out in a typically Bostonian offhand way: “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in editing the next edition of Bartlett, would you?” I replied that I would be, provided I could hire a staff of experts in different fields who would select the familiar quotes with proper sources. That was agreed to.

Since the publication of the thirteenth, centennial edition a decade before, many people had achieved world renown and uttered memorable remarks—Camus, Dag Hammarskjöld, Pope John XXIII, Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Schweitzer—and phrases had emerged: the beat generation, brinkmanship, the Great Society, the affluent society, the multiversity, cybernetics, racism, the revolution of rising expectations, the American Establishment. Translations from the classics had to be overhauled and brought into the twentieth century. Homer hitherto had appeared in Familiar Quotations only in Pope’s translation, of which Pope’s contemporary, the classicist Richard Bentley, remarked, “It is a very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer. ” It was Zeph Stewart who now translated Homer and, along with Dudley Fitts, other classical authors. (Stewart had been shocked to find “Man is the measure of all things” missing from Protagoras, and that might have goaded him into taking up the challenge of “doing” the classics, which he did superbly.)


OTHER FAMOUS quotations had been overlooked in previous editions: “There is always something new out of Africa” (Pliny); “But it does move” (Galileo); “There go the ships” (Psalm 104); “When I am dead and opened you shall find ‘Calais’ lying on my heart” (Mary Tudor); “But that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead” (Marlowe); “One man with courage makes a majority” (Andrew Jackson); “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana); “Surprised by joy” (Wordsworth); “E = mc2”(Einstein); “Q.E.D.” (Euclid); “War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military” (Clemenceau); “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step” (Laotzu); “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken” (Cromwell), a saying that Judge Learned Hand wished to have “written over the portals of every church, every school, every courthouse, and … every legislative body in the United States.”

Errors had persisted—one for over a hundred years: the misquotation of the title of Gray’s “Elegy.” The word Written was omitted before “in a Country Churchyard. ” It had escaped all the editors and proofreaders and copy editors, and it was the organist in my church who pointed it out to me.

As in previous editions, we had fun with the footnotes, not only adding interesting cross-references but also inserting occasional parodies of passages quoted. One of my favorites is James K. Stephen’s takeoff on the Wordsworth poem that goes, “Two voices are there: one is of the sea,/One of the mountains.…” Stephen’s version reads, “Two voices are there: one is of the deep/And one is of an old half-witted sheep/Which bleats articulate monotony,/ And indicates that two and one are three./And, Wordsworth, both are thine.”

The blue-bound fourteenth edition came out in 1968 and did so well that during some years it sold as many as fifty thousand copies.

BY 1976 LITTLE, BROWN was looking ahead to its 125th anniversary, and it was decided that a suitable commemorative publication would be a new edition of Bartlett—the fifteenth. The first thing Mary Rackliffe, the superb copy editor of the fourteenth edition, and I did was to go through the old edition of Bartlett and mark passages to go.

But of course the primary mission of a Bartlett editor is to assemble appropriate quotations from the years since the previous edition, again using the criteria of “familiar” or “worthy of perpetuation.” The new edition also should reflect recent developments in scholarship regarding earlier authors, new editions, and fresh translations. Quotations not included before suddenly take on relevance and significance in the light of changing tastes and attitudes.

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:

I wander lonely, as a cloud that floats on high My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky The window’s panes are in its sash, I wonder why.

The ice is there, the ice is here On the opposite shore rides Paul Revere His brow is wet with honest sweat The feast is set, the guests are met

Eternal summer gilds them, yet How the farmers gave them ball for ball, Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all The curfew tolled the knell of parting day And when the sun set where were they?

I met a traveler from an antique land I knew his heart, I knew his hand We stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs And looked at each other with a wild surmise. The sea was calm that night, the tide was full A boy stood on the burning deck The blessed damosel leaned out and wept, I heard her tears She was the darling of my heart and she lived in our alley Oh how she walked in beauty like the night! O Mary, go and call the cattle home, across the sands o’Dee

Under a spreading chestnut tree The splendor falls on castle walls The harp that once through Tara’s halls Like a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Earth hath not anything to show more fair Unwept, unhonored, and unsung Nothing beside remains!

“We’re lost,” the Captain shouted. Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore!”

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