June 14, 2012

Birth of Bartlett: the degree of familiarity

"It is not easy to determine in all cases the degree of familiarity that may belong to phrases and sentences which present themselves for admission," wrote John Bartlett in his fourth edition of Familiar Quotations, "for what is familiar to one class of readers may be quite new to another." Bartlett was born on June 14, 1820 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but his claim to fame did not occur until he moved to Cambridge to run a book store next to Harvard University. Bartlett was soon recognized for his seemingly limitless memory and his ability to track down obscure trivia made him a frequently sought after member of the community.

Bartlett, in fact, began answering so many questions that he began compiling a book - an early sort of "Frequently Asked Questions." In 1855, he privately published the first edition of his Familiar Quotations, a dictionary of quotes from the Bible to Shakespeare, and from politicians to British poets. After the Civil War, for which he served in an administrative role with the Navy, he joined the publishing company of Little, Brown, and Company, which soon issued a fourth edition. In fact, by the end of his life he had overseen nine editions of his book of quotations, as well as a major book on words used or coined by Shakespeare.

Some of the quotes in Bartlett's collection include:

Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teaching.
          from "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant

Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
          from "Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the few, the immortal names,
That were not born to die.
          from "Marco Bozzaris" by Fitz-Greene Halleck

The Almighty Dollar.
          from "The Creole Village" by Washington Irving

Earth's noblest thing, a woman perfected.
          from "Irene" by James Russell Lowell

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
          from "Home Sweet Home" by John Howard Payne

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