|The New York
Times Book Review turned over a good part of its letters space recently to
a tempest over the line—mangled in a review—"A day away from
Tallulah is like a month in the country." It isn't in the new 16th edition
of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Six letter writers and the editor attributed
it to eight of the usual suspects: George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Alexander
Woollcott, Howard Dietz, Robert Benchley, Ilka Chase, Tallulah Bankhead's
husband and Goodman Ace. In another letter in the same issue we found the
poet Anthony Hecht upbraiding the novelist Alison Lurie for failing to notice
a light-fingered borrowing by the novelist Peter Ackroyd from the poet Wordsworth
about some sentimental mist glittering over some plashy earth. This is also
missing from Bartlett's —though the new edition has finally caught up
with Evelyn Waugh's far more important plashitude: "Feather-footed through
the plashy fen passes the questing vole."
Pity the editors of any familiar quotations volume. The culture moves so fast these days. Who knows whose bons mots will be borrowed, twisted, misremembered and misattributed in next week's Book Review? John Bartlett himself, having begun in 1855 with the essential smattering of Bible, Shakespeare and mostly English stalwarts, went through nine editions in his lifetime without ever awakening to his contemporaries Whitman, Thoreau or Melville. Today editors have to keep their fingers more tightly on the pulse. Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley have become ancient sages; to capture the words now on our lips and pens, the new edition has felt obliged to canonize less venerable authors like the Doors ("Come on, baby, light my fire"), Sesame Street ("Me want cookie!") and Monty Python's Flying Circus ("This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot"). No wonder the editors liked this last one, a micro-Bartlett's, from the Bible to George Eliot in 60 words.
All the Bartlett's editors since Bartlett have been challenged to redefine their work product. Christopher Morley, the 11th edition's editor, described it in words found quotable by the 15th edition's editor: "a sort of anthropology; a social history; a diary of the race." Justin Kaplan, the editor of the new edition, notes a more contemporary-minded mission as well, "both intellectual history and cultural montage, a key to past and present taste." As Mr. Kaplan says, the chronological arrangement of authors in Bartlett's (in contrast to the alphabetical arrangement in such competitors as The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) makes it a book for not just reference but browsing; it "invites readers to travel over land masses and archeological layers of remembered words."
Cultural montage is certainly right. In this day of multiculturalism, any good quotation book reads as an antidote to the fissioning and fragmenting. It is a monument to the battered idea of a shared culture (monoculturalism? uniculturalism?), treating our language as a web that binds us with strands reaching back to ancestral memories. Never mind whether all these words of Chaucer and Milton and the other dead white men beloved of John Bartlett should be familiar; surprisingly often they are familiar, still. Or if not familiar then resonant in other ways.
If people now read fewer and fewer of the same books, listen to the same authorities or even watch the same television shows, we nevertheless find that we can hardly communicate without falling back on bits of quotation, steppingstones in the muck of daily discourse. At the level of sound bite and cliche, we are always quoting, if inadvertently: "So much for him" (Hamlet). "In my mind's eye" (Hamlet again). "Good—bad—indifferent" and "That's another story" (both Laurence Sterne). "The plot thickens" (George Villiers). An "embarrassment of riches" (Abbe d'Allainval). We quote to capture with utmost economy particular nuances or emotions. How else to get across that certain flavor of sanctimonious outrage but say: "I'm shocked—shocked! . . ." (still missing from Bartlett's, though no fewer than four other lines from Casablanca have now made the grade, including one I've already quoted). We're surrounded by this stuff, like it or not.
The editors of Bartlett's have increasingly recognized that the stuff is not just the fine words of literate types but the movie lines and catch phrases that keep ringing in our ears: "Go ahead, make my day" (Joseph C. Stinson, in the screenplay for "Sudden Impact"), a new entry with a Ronald Reagan footnote, "I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: 'Go ahead . . .' "). As Mr. Kaplan notes in his preface, there are "nursery rhymes, song lyrics and the like that have so much talismanic force they function on a nearly preintellectual level." There are shards of instant history: "None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers" (David Stockman). Where our explosively diversifying culture has made the task of a Bartlett's editor difficult is in offering up an ever greater torrent of material. When you browse the final pages of this edition—"E. T., phone home"; "We are the world, / We are the children," and "All I can say to them is read my lips: no new taxes"—you start to think of someone standing under a waterfall with a teacup.
I estimate (based on some rough numbers from the Library of Congress) that humanity now publishes as many words every week or so as it did in all human history up to 1800. Yet the period before 1800 still accounts for about half the contents of Bartlett's. In part, that makes sense. Once a thing has been said, it's been said; the rest of us have to think of something new, and it becomes more difficult. To see how important it is to get there first, consider the Upanishads (800-500 B.C.). These account for such gems as "Thou art that" and "Not thus, not thus," not to mention the quasi moan that stands as Bartlett's shortest quotation: "Om" (edging out O.K., Q.E.D. and E=mc2). Since someone (anonymous) came up with "a fool's paradise" and "rain cat and dogs," everyone else has just been quoting.
Meanwhile, though, quite a few relics of the past have gone painfully obsolete. Mr. Kaplan writes that he has tried to weed out the "self-evident propositions, ceremonial boilerplate, gassy platitudes and fortune cookie sentiments," and the publishers bill this as "the most thorough revision in decades," but to me both the weeding and the rejuvenation look surprisingly conservative. The 16th edition actually brings fewer new authors than the 15th did in 1980. And—to fire at random—weren't the editors tempted to back away from Francis Quarles (1592-1644): "The way to bliss lies not on beds of down" and "He that had no cross deserves no crown"? Or Richard Barnfield (1574-1627): "King Pandion, he is dead, / All thy friends are lapp'd in lead"? Quarles dips from 12 items to 11, while Barnfield holds steady at five. Some authors have been banished—generally representing the extremes of sappiness, like Walter Pope ("May I govern my passions with absolute sway, / And grow wiser and better, as strength wears away").
At some point I suppose the editors confront a literary equivalent of disturbing ancient burial grounds. What a delicate task it must have been to pore over the 222 entries from Hamlet (almost a fifth of the play—a weird abridged version that would run at least a half-hour). What to keep? What to dump? The editors finally gritted their teeth and dropped two lines. They also found one to add, "Murder most foul," and what a shock to think that it had been left out until now. So Hamlet wanes imperceptibly from 222 entries to 221. Bartlett himself made do with quite a lot fewer.
I wouldn't want to be the one to suggest cuts from Hamlet; still, surely the knives could have gone deeper without hitting bone. Is it just me, or has "The Lacedemonians are not wont to ask how many the enemy are, but where they are" (attributed to Agis) lost its power to thrill? Hasn't the time come to let go of Andrew Marvell's "Where the remote Bermudas ride, / In th' ocean's bosom unespied"? Or for that matter Ezra Pound's "Haie! Haie! / These were the swift to harry"? Maybe there are readers whose hearts quicken when they read these words, even if they haven't been paraphrasing them at dinner parties lately. But am I the only one who is more likely to perk up at Annie Dillard ("I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck") or Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead ("Are we having fun yet?")?
Ezra Pound's 27 items are absolutely untouched. Are they untouchable? Did he really worm his way as deeply into our connective tissue as his canonizers thought for a few decades? Clearly there is something to be said for a principle of stare decisis in Bartlett's as in jurisprudence; we do need our cultural anchors. But I notice that John Updike, for example, has been completely overhauled, three quotations replacing two from the last edition. I guess I'm showing my callowness if I admit that my own Bartlett's would have something more like 27 Updikes and 3 Pounds. (Goodbaie! Goodbaie!) I may as well go all the way and say that a routinely flowery tradition in poetry, from all eras, has come to seem overrepresented. Luckily my kind of philistinism gets a plug in the new edition from Raymond Carver ("Maybe I just don't understand poetry. I admit it's not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read").
I'm sure many readers will disagree. Maybe some will be as thrilled as I am mystified by "King Pandion, he is dead," or as mystified as I am thrilled by Lenore Coffee's line spoken on screen by Bette Davis: "What a dump!" One thing that's certain is that when a quotation falls flat, no amount of explication can bring it to life. Or as Louis Armstrong said, "Man, if you gotta ask you'll never know."
Immortalizing these gems from the vernacular is as dangerous as it is essential. Quite a few entries that made their first appearance in the 15th edition have already been dropped from the 16th. Wilted and stale, they make depressing reading. Stevie Wonder: "You are the sunshine of my life" (can "Come on, baby, light my fire" really be far behind?). A Gail Sheehy line from Passages. Liv Ullmann.
Mr. Kaplan has been a little more careful with song lyrics and has almost entirely evaded the quagmire of television, a deep source of glittering nuggets, almost all (but which will be the exceptions?) sure to fade. The Star Trek mantra, "These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise," has made it in, in its sexist first-generation version (". . . where no man has gone before . . ."), along with the line, evidently never spoken on the show, "Beam me up, Scotty. There's no intelligent life down here." But that's just about the whole contribution of the box. No "Your mission, should you choose to accept it. . . ." No "Here's Johnny." It would be a slippery slope.
What Mr. Kaplan has done instead—his shrewdest course correction, I think—is to expand the book's sense of what makes a worthwhile quotation. There is a new bestiary of antiquotes, lines that stand out for their sheer inadvertent stupidity or hypocrisy: "To some extent, if you've seen one city slum you've seen them all" (Spiro Agnew); "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. . . . We can't all have Brandeises, Cardozos and Frankfurters and stuff like that there" (Senator Roman Hruska), and the sole new item from Richard Nixon: "The kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it." With this sort of thing we've come a long way from the "thing of beauty is a joy forever" school of quotation. Previous editions have not shown such acid irony.
There's also more in the way of pure whimsy. Ordinarily Bartlett's eschews quotations that require editorial explanations, but unless you first picture Groucho Marx feeling for a pulse, how can you appreciate the Robert Pirosh and George Seaton line: "Either he's dead, or my watch has stopped"? Context is also helpful for "A boy's best friend is his mother," from Joseph Stefano's screenplay for Psycho. Joe Louis is finally recognized for "He can run, but he can't hide." Henny Youngman has arrived, and how sobering it is to think that an individual of the species homo sapiens will long be remembered for the four words, "Take my wife . . . please!" Meanwhile, one can imagine the pride that the editors felt in managing to add, with a precise citation to an 1887 vaudeville routine by Joseph Weber and Lew Fields: "Who was that lady I saw you with last night?" "She ain't no lady; she's my wife." Weighing these jokes carefully, the editors have dropped Hipponax (c. 570-520 B.C.): "There are two days when a woman is a pleasure: the day one marries her and the day one buries her." And they have added Nancy Astor: "I married beneath me. All women do."
There are also more examples than ever of the odd sentences that rattle about in our brains like persistent bits of melody—"Do not fold, spindle or mutilate"; "Tennis, anyone?"; "Kilroy was here"; "What, Me Worry?"—not so much quotations as accidental linguistic artifacts, almost without meaning. And in what category falls one of the oldest new quotations, attributed to the Cretan sage Epimenides: "All Cretans are liars"? It is a metasentence used in logic puzzles.
Another new category covers quotations that Mr. Kaplan admits "could not be described as 'familiar' but, one might argue, deserve to be 'familiar.' " This is a way of broadening the traditional territory to include subcultures like science, and the results don't exactly come trippingly off the tongue. How often have you heard anyone quote James Watson and Francis Crick: "This [double helix] structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest. . . . It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material"?
Important, yes, but quotable? It's as if the editors lowered their standards to include scientists, and that was not necessary. There is real poetry in science; they might have found, for example:
From Hermann Minkowski: "Space of itself and time of itself will sink into mere shadows, and only a kind of union between them shall survive."
From Richard Feynman: "Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry." Or: "It has not yet become obvious to me that there's no real problem [with quantum mechanics]. I cannot define the real problem, therefore I suspect there's no real problem, but I'm not sure there's no real problem."
From John von Neumann: "If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o'clock, I say why not 1 o'clock?"
From John Archibald Wheeler: "A black hole has no hair."
From Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac:
Age is, of course, a fever chill
That every physicist must fear.
He's better dead than living still
When once he's past his thirtieth year.
All these certainly qualify as influential and much quoted in certain circles, though, I admit, they are not quite on the order of one of my personal favorites in the new edition, from Dr. Seuss:
I meant what I said
And I said what I meant . . .
An elephant's faithful
One hundred per cent!
The quotation-book business is booming. No subdivision of the culture seems too narrow to have a quotation book of its own. There are books of proverbs, mottoes, thoughts, aphorisms, words of wisdom, words of war, warriors' words. There are humorous, political, favorite, memorable, Roman Catholic, Yiddish, women's, classical, folk, writers', artists', East and West, medical, home, one-line, movie, legal, business, quirky, cynical and quotable quotations. It would be an understatement to say that these books lean on one another. To compare them is to stroll through a glorious jungle of incestuous mutual plagiarism.
Only Bartlett's, the Oxford (now in a new fourth edition) and one or two others offer the sense that the editors have been combing the language and not the quote books. For Americans, especially, Bartlett's is more than ever the book of choice. The scholarship has always been superb, and part of the fun of the new edition is seeing some of the latest cleanup of old mistakes. "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it" now goes into Mark Twain's column. The editors seem to have finally tracked down the precise origin of Jack Kerouac's "We're a beat generation." Bartlett's remains a resource for fact-checking and epigraph-seeking—the world's greatest source of title-page quotations and also the worst, because, after all, once your epigraph is in Bartlett's it has already been overused.
But aren't we starting to run out of fresh things to say? Here we are, five billion of us, chattering away all day, and there just can't be that many different meaningful combinations of a dozen or so words—can there? As Noam Chomsky put it: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Yet here is a new entry from Ursula Le Guin, evidently the first person in human history to make something of "The king was pregnant." Buck Henry and Calder Willingham are finally recognized for "Ben—I want to say one word to you—just one word—plastics."
Unicultural as Bartlett's is, it's not striving for an all-pleasing average. It has to hold pockets of opacity for any individual reader. The uttering and hearing of quotations are such personal acts. "What we've got here is failure to communicate," Frank R. Pierson wrote in his Cool Hand Luke screenplay. That seems to be all right with the editors. This is less and less a quotation book for desperate after-dinner speakers; more and more a road-map-in-progress for our oddball, meandering language. Bartlett's is no longer a would-be best-of compilation, aimed at an illusory cultural center. It embraces the quirks, rolls with the punches, goes with the flow.
The 17th edition of Bartlett's is well under way, I hear. I wonder how the Internet has changed the landscape. Quotations are an explicit part of the culture, of course—appearing in people's signatures, even rotating randomly. Will some of these become more official?
First published in the New York Times Book Review 8 August 1993