Cambridge Resists a Changing World

The noted biographer Justin Kaplan, who won both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award for his biographies of Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens, and Walt Whitman, has died at the age of 88. He had a long and distinguished career in American letters, not just with his biographies but as an editor of such writers as Bertrand Russell, Will Durant, Nikos Kazantzakis, and C. Wright Mills.

He also edited the 16th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, published in 1992. I wrote a review of that book. I can’t recall where it appeared, nor can I find it on the web. But along with praise for many of the changes he made, notably in making it fresher and more multicultural, I did note one concern with his selections, which I suggested was common among East Coast intellectuals:

The dozen years since the fifteenth edition have been marked by a worldwide turn toward markets, from Reagan and Thatcher to the New Zealand Labor Party’s free-market reforms to the fall of Soviet communism.  This historical trend seems to have escaped editor Kaplan, of Cambridge, Mass., who has given us more quotations from Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Robert Heilbroner, while virtually eliminating F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, the intellectual gurus of the free-market revolution.  A bust of Hayek now sits in the Kremlin, but Cambridge is holding out against the tide.

Hayek has been reduced to two quotations, neither of which reflects his particular contributions to social thought.  Friedman is represented by three, including the wrongly attributed aphorism, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Meanwhile, the towering figure of John Kenneth Galbraith receives 11 citations.  (William F. Buckley, Jr., is unrepresented.)

As in 1980, the Bible is second only to Shakespeare in the number of quotations included.  But Ayn Rand, who came in second to the Bible in a 1991 Gallup survey on most influential authors, gets only three citations.  Margaret Thatcher likewise is represented with three quotations, none of which captures her free-market radicalism.

Quotations from recent presidents offer a similar surprise.  John F. Kennedy leads the pack with 28 quotations, followed by Richard Nixon with 10, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter with 6, George Bush with 4, and Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan with 3.  Again, Reagan’s impact on the world, not to mention his reputation as the Great Communicator, seems to have bypassed Cambridge.  However, when one tries to remember which Reagan phrases ought to be included, one is struck by how many of them are derivative: “city on a hill,” “Evil Empire,” “rendezvous with destiny,” “Where’s the Rest of Me?”  (Surely John G. Magee’s “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth” was added to this edition because Peggy Noonan used those lines in the remarks she wrote for Reagan after the Challenger disaster, yet there is no reference to Reagan.)

Still, one would think that a few of his off-the-cuff remarks–“There you go again” or “We begin bombing in five minutes”–might warrant inclusion, along with some Reaganesque phrases about politics and government, such as “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” or “the ant heap of totalitarianism” or “The nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth is a temporary government agency.”

Which reminds me, where is Barry Goldwater’s “A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away”?  (For that, you’ll need Bruce Bohle’s Home Book of American Quotations.)

One might assume that these curiosities don’t represent any conscious bias on Kaplan’s part, just a blindness to the political and economic changes going on in the world.  Dictionaries of quotations are perforce behind the times; they represent the distilled wisdom, or at least memorabilia, of centuries.  As market liberalism sweeps the world in the 21st century, its architects will get their due.  Still, it’s disappointing to see a 1992 edition offering fewer selections from thinkers such as Friedman and Hayek.  And Kaplan’s response to an earlier criticism about the lack of Reagan quotations suggests a determined refusal to grant Reagan an important place in the world.  Presumably the same animus is in fact reflected in the lack of quotations from Hayek, Friedman, and so on.

I should note that some of these criticisms were remedied in the 2002 edition, which Kaplan also edited, and in the most recent revision. Reagan, Thatcher, and Rand (though not Hayek) are better represented. And certainly these omissions in a massive reference work don’t detract from Kaplan’s great contributions to literature and biography. RIP.