Great Thoughts

E.S. Turner

  • The Macmillan Treasury of Relevant Quotations edited by Edward Murphy
    Macmillan, 658 pp, £3.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 333 30038 6

‘It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations,’ wrote Sir Winston Churchill in My Early Life. In America this need was famously recognised by the publishers of the Elbert Hubbard Scrap Book, containing the 2,500 greatest thoughts. Hubbard went down in the Lusitania, but his book was advertised with great vigour for the benefit of tongue-tied partygoers who found their fellow guests talking about Nietzsche. ‘Elbert Hubbard did all your reading for you,’ the publishers said. ‘His book will make you so well informed – you’ll never need to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable in company again.’ Of late, the uneducated, and even the educated, have been well served, for the familiar thick tomes of Hoyt, Benham, Bartlett, Stevenson, the Oxford (recently revised) and the Penguin have been joined by works like the Wintle/Kenin Dictionary of Biographical Quotations and numerous slimmer, more specialised, often racy volumes; and now, in paperback, comes a curiously titled blockbuster from Macmillan.

Books of quotations vary greatly in intention, from those which exist primarily to identify tags or phrases to the self-styled treasuries or (if one must) chrestomathies, built more for browsing and brushing up on Nietzsche. The most discriminating of these collections, a cynic might say, are those which exclude the mots of the compiler himself. The tendency to line oneself up with the masters may be studied in Bartlett’s Unfamiliar Quotations, compiled by Leonard Louis Levenson, which contains more than a hundred and eighty entries credited to L.L.L.; in A Treasury of Humorous Quotations, compiled by Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow Jr, with 65 entries by Prochnow senior; and in Quotations For Our Time, by Dr Laurence Peter (author of The Peter Principle), with 37 entries of his own. It’s not wholly a new conceit: even L. T. Hoyt, last century, was not so unjust to himself as to deny his own verses comparison with those of Tennyson and Milton.

The Macmillan Treasury of Relevant Quotations is singularly unforthcoming in its presentation. To the question ‘Relevant to what?’ we are given no answer, for there is no preface, foreword, introduction or blurb, and nothing about the compiler. After the title-page come three impacted pages of copyright acknowledgments and then we are plunged straight into Ability, Abnegation, Abnormality and Abortion.

However, if one seeks out the hardback edition, published not long ago, and is lucky enough to find it still wearing its jacket, one may learn a little more about the book’s purpose. The jacket bears the bold subtitle ‘The best witty, pithy statements from all time pertinent to people and life today’, a flourish which may have been dropped for reasons of modesty, or truthfulness, or both. From the flap of the jacket we learn that the entries are ‘unhackneyed, thought-provoking and inspiring’, wholly focused on the concerns of contemporary society and suited to the use of business people, politicians, sports fans and even women. As for the compiler, he is a teacher in New York and has contributed round-ups of quotations to the New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal and – since he is no prude – to Playboy.

The American orientation of the book is very strong: so strong that while there are many pages of quotations on baseball, basketball and American football, there is not a line about British football or cricket. Nearly all the items on boxing, golf and tennis are of American provenance. It is the same in many other fields: all but one of those offering opinions on humour, for example, are from beyond the Atlantic. True, the index suggests that P.G. Wodehouse is well represented, but 21 of the 26 references against his name relate to works by the unindexed George F. Woodberry (another English humorist, D. B. Wyndham-Lewis, has his entries indexed under Percy Wyndham Lewis). The genuine Wodehouse entries are not really vintage, which may well be the result of trying to find unhackneyed passages.

Indeed, the search for the unhackneyed has cast something of a blight over the book. Though some very civil views are expressed about the Bible there is nothing from that work itself. Shakespeare has four or five indifferent lines. Keats is represented by his prose and an obscurely naughty joke he is said to have passed on about the female pudenda. At heart, Mr Murphy seems to be a serious-minded man and he concentrates on the writings of the great and not-so-great philosophers. Like Roget, he is too keen on grouping his material under abstract headings: the section on Self is followed by Self-Acceptance, Self-Assertion, Self-Awareness, Self-Control, Self-Deception, Self-Expression, Self-Fulfilment, Self-Knowledge, Self-Pity, Self-Rejection and Self-Reliance.

In his zeal Mr Murphy works his favourite philosophers very hard indeed. The browser finds himself relentlessly pursued and ambushed, no matter what the topic, by D. H. Lawrence (73 entries), J. B. and W. B. Yeats (73), Oliver Wendell Holmes (72). A. C. Benson (67), Sherwood Anderson (64), George Santayana (61), Henry Miller (56), Emerson (55), William James (49), Nietzsche (46) and Anaïs Nin (40). These are only the familiar names; the unknown table-talkers, maxim-mongers and cracker-barrel wiseacres buttonhole the reader hardly less repetitively. Among the prolific pronouncements on human nature and the social order there are, to be sure, many pithy, thought-provoking and ‘relevant’ opinions – how could there not be? – yet there is too often a lack of snap and crackle, a touch of the stodginess which goes with unrisen bread.

The compiler is clearly alive to the danger of swamping his columns with philosophic earnestness. He therefore inserts a few down-to-earth subject-headings like Breasts and Buttocks (which gives Germaine Greer her chance), Homosexuality and even Subways and Ziegfeld Follies. Unfortunately, it is when he feels the need to unbend and put on his Playboy hat that Mr Murphy lets us down: he seems unable to recognise contemporary dross when he sees it (a complaint levelled in some quarters against the revisers of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). His desperate eye lights on a magazine interview with New York’s ‘Miss Subways’, who tells of the lewd jokes her title attracts from strangers with minds like Keats’s; or he lifts from Bella Abzug’s Bella! an outstandingly pointless passage like this: ‘Tonight as I was getting my hair done in the Home Beauty Parlor I was sitting under a hair-dryer next to Louise Day Hicks, and the first thing she said to me was, “What are you going to wear tomorrow? Long or short?” ’

A serious criticism of the book must be its sloppiness about sources. As a rule the titles of works quoted are given, but the rule is too often broken. Names like H. George and Ted Saucier lie on the page unexplained. The record for unsourced quotations is held by the mysterious Brendan Francis, whose name is undiscoverable in the British Library catalogue or the usual reference books. He has 56 entries on subjects ranging from homosexuality to horror movies; he even writes on quotations: ‘A quotation in a speech, article or book is like a rifle in the hands of an infantryman. It speaks with authority.’ (If only it did!) Who, then, is Brendan Francis? An old chum of the compiler? Someone writing under a pen-name? Or just a wag who turns up with contributions when books of quotations are being produced?

Identity problems begin on page 1 with a saying by Baltasar Gracian: It is perhaps no deep disgrace not to have heard of him: the encyclopedia says he was a Spanish Jesuit born in 1601 and an exponent of conceptismo, a style of dealing wittily with ideas. Should we not have been given at least his dates? There are 23 sayings by Ernest Hello, whose name suggests that he might be the author of books on dynamic thinking: he was a 19th-century French philosopher. John Lancaster Spalding, with 52 entries, turns out to have been a 19th-century bishop of Peoria. Even some of the British names are none too familiar. Sir Arthur Helps, with 33 extracts from Essays Written in the intervals of Business, was – but, of course – the clerk to the Privy Council who revised Prince Albert’s speeches for publication; those Essays were written in 1841. Another English philosopher whose name rings a slightly louder (and slightly cracked) bell is James Douglas, the Beaverbrook director who specialised in attacking books like The Well of Loneliness. It would have served him right if he had been indexed under Norman Douglas.

Almost the only dates furnished by Mr Murphy are of issues of American magazines in which collections of sayings have appeared. Thus Sydney Smith (without the Reverend) appears by courtesy of the Ladies’ Home Journal, and so do Heine and Lord Halifax (which Lord Halifax?). The sole Disraeli saying comes by way of Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book. Some of Shaw’s observations are given no source. It will not do for compiler or publisher to protest that the inclusion of dates and basic detail would have made the book even bulkier, for it needs winnowing of a great deal of chaff (quite apart from contemporary drivel).

Who else, for instance, would bother to quote this pensée on the subject of the Sabbath: ‘Why is Sunday such an empty day, anywhere, city or country?’ It is by Katherine Butler Hathaway, one of 40 entries from her Journal and Letters of the Little Locksmith, published early this century. Or what other compiler would find room for this, under Police: The police cannot give efficient service unless they are backed up by their superior officers and know that their conscientious efforts will receive the hearty and earnest co-operation of the magistrates and judges.’ Pithy? It could have appeared in a thousand newspaper editorials and was in fact spoken by John F. Hylan, Mayor of New York, in 1920.

Mr Murphy is entitled to defend the chaff by quoting his own ‘Swiss-German Proverb’ which says: ‘Great consolations may come out of the smallest saying.’ There are rather better proverbs than that strewn through the book, with a curious preponderance of Balkan ones. The Bulgarians, it seems, say defeatist things like ‘When the sea turns to honey the poor man loses his spoon.’ Perhaps the best ethnic ‘proverb’ is the Portuguese one chosen for reproduction on the back cover, striking as it does an agreeable note of female stoicism: ‘It is nothing – they are only thrashing my husband.’

For a work addressed to the interests of contemporary society the Macmillan Treasury seems oddly neglectful of economics, dismal though that science may be; nor, surprisingly, has it much to say about such current obsessions as race, colour and class. For protagonists of the sex war, however, there is a substantial amount of ammunition, ranging from ‘A maid that laughs is half taken’ (English Proverb) to ‘A woman is occasionally quite a serviceable substitute for masturbation. It takes an abundance of imagination, to be sure’ (Karl Kraus). The widespread preoccupation with abortion rates only two entries, one by Laurie Tilsin RN, who is neither an admiral nor a midshipman but, presumably, an American registered nurse. On the general obsession with sex there is Albert Camus: ‘I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.’ Is there no cheer for puritans? Mr Murphy’s subject index has an entry reading: ‘Sexual abstinence of Irish young people ... 528’. Alas, page 528 has not a word about this phenomenon.