Not Just an Ordinary Dunderhead

PETER A. JAY

October 14, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- John Bartlett was a classic university-town book wonk. In 1836, aged 16, he went to work for a bookstore near the Harvard Yard. Soon the entire Cambridge community learned that if you wanted to know who said something, you should ask John.

Even after he owned the store, John Bartlett continued fielding queries about quotes. He kept a notebook, which grew and grew, and in 1856 he published the first edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. As it was exactly the sort of volume no literate home should be without, it was an instant success. Bartlett and Little, Brown, where he eventually went to work, published nine editions before he died in 1905. I have the Fourteenth Edition, published in 1968, beside me as I write.

No edition of Bartlett's satisfies everyone. The Tenth, published in 1914 and not updated until 1937, was criticized for leaving out, among others, Emily Dickinson and William Blake. Christopher Morley and Louella Everett, who edited the Eleventh (1937) and Twelfth (1948) editions, culled many quotations they considered no longer in current use. Their efforts were praised, but not universally.

Even the editors of Little, Brown, who threw themselves heart and soul into the publication of the centennial Thirteenth Edition, allowed some puzzling omissions. (Here are three: ''E=mc2''; ''A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step''; ''I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.'' Educated persons, or those in possession of a Fourteenth Edition, know the authors of these as Albert Einstein, Lao Tzu and Oliver Cromwell.)

Now the Sixteenth Edition is out. Sad to say, it has been edited by a dunderhead -- and not just an ordinary dunderhead, but a nasty bluenosed one as well. Whether there's a perceptible subterranean rumbling from the burial grounds of Mr. Bartlett and his deceased successors I know not, but we among the living who cherish their work have every reason to be appalled.

The guiding philosophy of Bartlett's has always been an inclusive one, but the work of the current editor, Justin Kaplan, is defined more by ideology than literary judgment. ''I'm not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan,'' Mr. Kaplan told the Philadelphia Inquirer. So he left out all Reagan quotations except three chosen to make the speaker look foolish.

You don't have to be a right-winger to recognize the collapse of communism as the great event of the last half-century. You don't have to be a Republican to see that Ronald Reagan might have played a tiny part in it. And you don't need a doctorate to sense that Mr. Reagan's great 1987 challenge in Berlin -- ''Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'' -- might be worth a line of type in the current Bartlett's.

A famous Reagan speech in 1983 gave new hope to thousands living behind that wall, even as it drew shocked gasps from sophisticates who thought it a breach of international manners? Beware ''the aggressive impulses of an evil empire,'' Mr. Reagan warned. The phrase passed instantly into history. At Bartlett's, Mr. Kaplan appears not to have noticed.

It wasn't just Ronald Reagan Mr. Kaplan has short-changed. Margaret Thatcher, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Vaclav Havel fare equally badly. But the new Bartlett's lovingly preserves six quotations from that great phrasemaker Jimmy Carter, and 11 from John Kenneth Galbraith.

Policy Review, the magazine of the Heritage Foundation, was the first to point out the shortcomings of the current Bartlett's. It invited readers to submit quotations from the past 50 years of the sort that would probably enrage Mr. Kaplan but ought to be included in the next edition. An avalanche of wonderful stuff appeared.

Missing from the Sixteenth Edition of Bartlett's:

''No Western nation has to build a wall round itself to keep its people in.'' (Mrs. Thatcher). ''Communism will never be halted by negotiations . . . It can only be halted by force from without or by disintegration from within.'' (Mr. Solzhenitsyn).

''Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. . . . It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to prosecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.'' (Mr. Havel).

''The issue of race could benefit from a period of benign neglect.'' (Daniel Patrick Moynihan). ''I certainly agree that we should not go around saying we are the world's policeman. But guess who gets called when someone needs a cop?'' (Colin Powell). ''If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free.'' (P.J. O'Rourke). ''Feminazis.'' (Rush Limbaugh).

''You spend a billion here and a billion there. Sooner or later it adds up to real money.'' (attributed to Everett Dirksen). ''Please tell me you're Republicans.'' (Mr. Reagan to his surgeons after he was shot in 1981). ''The first and fundamental structure for 'human ecology' is the family, in which man receives his first ideas about truth and goodness and learns what it means to love and be loved, and thus what it means to be a person.'' (Pope John Paul II).

That's the sort of stuff Justin Kaplan dislikes. Fortunately, we can get along without his travesty of Bartlett's while we wait for the next edition to come out -- which will be soon, with luck. A lot of us, like John Bartlett himself, will just keep our own notebooks.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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