History of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations Part 1

About the major reference book Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, biography of John Bartlett and history of the book's publication.



History: In 1836--the year Martin Van Buren was elected president and Arkansas became a state--a young man of 16 graduated from the public schools of Plymouth, Mass., trekked up to Cambridge, and found a job at the University Bookstore around the corner from Harvard. The new clerk was John Bartlett, son and grandson of sea captains, who could trace his Plymouth ancestry back to the Brewsters and the Aldens but who had no funds for any further formal education. He had, however, energy, intelligence, an extraordinary memory, and a passion for reading. In the 13 years that it took him to save enough to buy the bookstore, he read almost every book in it.

The University Bookstore was closely connected with Harvard (students' bills were guaranteed by the college),and after Bartlett became proprietor, he set up the little back room as a kind of reading room with copies of new books and the latest editions of foreign periodicals and journals spread out. Professors got in the habit of dropping by. A bibliopole who had read his own stock was a rarity, even in Cambridge. But Bartlett held yet another attraction for the Harvard community; he was a kind of quotation freak. "Ask John Bartlett" was the common suggestion when a student could not discover the source of a familiar phrase or when a professor with a speech to deliver required an apt quote on his chosen theme. And Bartlett, who had read the Bible from cover to cover by the time he was nine and most of the English classics soon thereafter, invariably responded with just the information desired.

Having gained such a reputation, he was bound to preserve it, and to that end began keeping a "commonplace book"; that is, a journal in which one jots down quotable passages, literary excerpts, and personal comments on same. This was the embryo that became Familiar Quotations, which Bartlett published himself, ordering 1,000 copies from the "printers to the university" in 1855. One of the earliest paperbacks, this small thin octavo of 258 pages contained quotations from 169 different sources, mostly English poets and the Bible, which comprised a major part of the book.

If Bartlett's range seems limited, it must be remembered that there were as yet few American authors of note. Although Melville had written almost all his major works, his unappreciative public would have disdained to quote him; Walden and Leaves of Grass were published almost simultaneously with the Quotations (and incidentally were not to be included in it for almost 60 years). Poets Longfellow, Bryant, Holmes, and Lowell appeared briefly, as did Irving and Franklin (the latter with "Here Skugg/Lies snug/As a bug/In a rug" from a letter to a lady friend consoling her for the loss of her squirrel). Americans of the politician-statesman variety (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, etc.) were quite ignored, and Lincoln was not to speak at Gettysburg for another eight years. There were also as yet few literary translations of much merit, with the exception of Pope's Homer, which was more Pope than Homer anyway.

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