The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture

Douglas Cowie has his eyes opened to the briefest of literary forms: the borrowed bon mot

August 11, 2011

I own a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, but I've always had a condescending and disdainful attitude towards it, even though it still sits next to the dictionary on my office shelf. I think I've used it exactly once, shortly after receiving it as a teenager, to look up "War is hell", which Gary Saul Morson's The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture informs me (quoting Louis Menand paraphrasing The Yale Book of Quotations) was not actually uttered by William Tecumseh Sherman; Morson also explains that it doesn't matter that Sherman didn't say it, and that he might as well have, and that, in a way, "William Tecumseh Sherman" did.

My problem with Bartlett's has always been one of snobbery: it seems philistine to collect a bunch of quotations, separated from context, so people can leaf through a book and feel educated, without necessarily knowing what they're talking about. It turns out that I'm in good company: Morson notes that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Seneca both disdained quotation. Except Morson also notes that Erasmus (who in his volume Adages collected quotations and wrote explanatory essays about them) and Tolstoy (who collected, translated and rewrote quotations for A Circle of Reading, which fills two full volumes of his collected works) align themselves in the pro-quotation camp. Morson also points out that the "much-quoted" Emerson comment, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know", itself "quotes (unwittingly?) from Seneca". Furthermore, just to get through an explanation of my own attitude to quotation, I've had to quote somebody, and quote somebody else quoting, and quote somebody else quoting somebody else.

Fortunately, Morson is on the side of quotation. In fact, when I write "my own attitude to quotation", I should really write "my own pre-Morson attitude to quotation", because after reading this thoughtful, intelligent and feisty book, it is impossible not to readjust my attitude regarding quotations and the myriad types of collections of them. It is not often that a book turns a subject about which one has no interest into one of vitality and importance, but The Words of Others does just that.

There are two reasons for Morson's success. First, to quote Morson, "The way we speak of quotations does not match our actual appreciation of them." In other words, my disdain for Bartlett's has nothing to do with how much I actually use, value and need quotation. Second, Morson embeds his own enthusiasm for, and detailed thinking about, quotations in every sentence he writes - Morson actually speaks of quotations in a way that matches our actual appreciation of them.

Morson defines quotation by stating, "If epics and novels are by nature the longest literary forms, while lyric poems and short stories are considerably briefer, then quotations are the briefest of all." He then quickly and effectively makes his case. This change in attitude - from the Emerson/Seneca viewpoint to the Erasmus/Tolstoy/Morson way of looking at it - bears immediate fruit. A quotation moves from being an amputation from a larger text - an extract, as Morson defines it - to being a literary work with the depth, complications and value of its longer cousins. But just as one doesn't read a novel the same way as one reads a sonnet, one doesn't read a quotation in the same way as other forms. Quotation-reading is a skill one must learn and develop.

I wrote above that Morson "makes his case", but this is not an accurate way of describing what he does. He does not write like someone with a case or point to make. Rather, he writes as a teacher, with knowledge to share and opportunities to open ("We have not yet begun to quote," he concludes). The curious result of this approach is that the many details of quotation - that quotations are more than verbal, that they sometimes do and sometimes do not require context, that quotations are sometimes events, that misquotations can actually be quotations ("War is hell"), that quotations have two authors, that there is such a thing as mis-misquotation, and that it matters - none of which I'd ever considered - seem obvious and important. This doesn't mean that they are obvious; I don't think they are.

Morson's gift in this book is to turn the unapparent into the apparent through - again - a detailed and thoughtful process of discussion and explanation. Discussing W.H. Auden's and Louis Kronenberger's introduction to their Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection, Morson writes, "There is nothing democratic about this passage, which neither argues nor explains but simply asserts. The authors treat their taste as a moral, as well as aesthetic, standard. One either accepts their judgment or condemns oneself." The Words of Others is a profoundly democratic book by this standard. Morson's concerns are aesthetic, and the aesthetics are complicated, but even when discussing the differing quotations of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, his focus remains on the aesthetic and literary functions of how the quotations work.

The final key to what makes The Words of Others such a joy is, unsurprisingly (although perhaps only because Morson makes it unsurprising) the way in which he uses quotations to illustrate his discussion. In some cases, for example when discussing "former quotations", he provides a torrent of examples, underlining the ubiquity of quotation (and former quotation) by demonstrating it as he explains, and doing so without ever telling his readers that he is doing so. He also quotes without telling his readers that he is doing so.

In fact, I'm certain that there are any number of quotations that I read simply as Morson's own prose (and he covers why that kind of quotation matters, too), but my favourite "unacknowledged quotation" arrived when, discussing the phrase "weasel word", Morson decides: "What we call this phrase's real meaning depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Not only does Morson not mention Bill Clinton, but in quoting the former president's famous grand jury testimony in this way, he demonstrates implicitly one of his ideas that quotations take on different meanings in different contexts. Morson also uses the same quotations at greater length in different contexts within his discussion, reinforcing once again not only that contexts matter but also the literary value - the expanding meanings - of quotations.

So, to pick two examples, "Standing on the shoulders of giants" (which belongs to Isaac Newton, though it does not originate with him) and "Blood, sweat and tears" (which Winston Churchill said, but not at the time that it's usually claimed he did) crop up again and again, and each time look a little different from the way they did the time before. Nor does Morson limit himself to a few key examples when he's quoting; in addition to those I've already mentioned, he quotes and discusses Laurence Sterne, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ronald Reagan, Jane Austen, Leo Durocher, Yogi Berra, every quotation anthology he's ever come across, and 35 index pages more.

It all adds up to an enlightening and exciting course in the what, why and how of quotation, and the book achieves the rare result of altering the way one looks at what is right in front of one's nose. Morson may well be standing on the shoulders of giants, but he is doing so in order to see further, and he gives us a ladder so we can climb up there with him.

The Author

Keen to become a physicist, Gary Saul Morson attended the Bronx High School of Science, which offered classes in Russian. "It was shortly after Sputnik," he recalls, "and it was generally believed that to do science you needed Russian."

He went to Yale University to study physics but became interested in the history and philosophy of science, 18th-century English literature and, ultimately, "the Russians". Morson graduated in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in Russian, and received a Henry Fellowship to study the history of Soviet dialectical materialism at the University of Oxford, where he befriended another American student, Bill Clinton. In 1970, Morson returned to Yale, where he finished a PhD in Russian literature "in record time - because I was penniless".

Unsure that he would find academic work, Morson memorised the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, ready to become a taxi driver. He was spared that fate by the offer of a post at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1986, he moved to Northwestern University, Chicago, where, to his "utter surprise", he would go on to be named its most popular lecturer. He is also Northwestern's only scholar with two endowed chairs, one in research and one in teaching.

Morson's published works include And Quiet Flows the Vodka, or, When Pushkin Comes to Shove: The Curmudgeon's Guide to Russian Literature and Culture, published in 2000 under a pseudonym.

The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture

By Gary Saul Morson

Yale University Press, 336pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780300167474

Published 28 July 2011

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.