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XV. John Bartlett

In every university town such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is an outside circle, beyond the institution itself, of cultivated men who may or may not hold its degrees, but who contribute to the intellectual atmosphere. One of the most widely known and generally useful of these at Cambridge — whether in his active youth or in the patient and lonely seclusion of his later years — was John Bartlett, best known as the author of the dictionary entitled “Familiar quotations.”

He was born in Plymouth, June 14, 1820, was educated in the public schools of that town, and in 1836 entered the bookbinding establishment connected with the University bookstore in Cambridge, under John Owen, who was Longfellow's first publisher. In the next year Bartlett became a clerk in the bookstore, and soon showed remarkable talent for the business. In 1846 Mr. Owen failed, and Bartlett remained with his successor, George Nichols, but became himself the proprietor in 1849. He had shown himself in this position an uncommonly good publisher and adviser of authors. [194] He had there published three editions of his “Familiar quotations,” gradually enlarging the book from the beginning. In 1859 he sold out to Sever & Francis. In 1862 he served as volunteer naval paymaster for nine months with Captain Boutelle, his brother-in-law, on board Admiral DuPont's dispatch-boat. In August, 1863, he entered the publishing house of Little, Brown & Co., nominally as clerk, but with the promise that in eighteen months, when the existing partnership would end, he should be taken into the firm, which accordingly took place in 1865. The fourth edition of his “Familiar quotations,” always growing larger, had meanwhile been published by them, as well as an edition de luxe of Walton's “Complete Angler,” in the preparation of which he made an especial and exceptionally fine collection of works on angling, which he afterwards presented to the Harvard College Library. His activity in the Waltonian sport is also commemorated in Lowell's poem, “To Mr. John Bartlett, who had sent me a seven-pound trout.” He gave to the Library at the same time another collection of books containing “Proverbs,” and still another on “Emblems.”

After his becoming partner in the firm, the literary, manufacturing, and advertising departments were assigned to him, and were retained [195] until he withdrew altogether. The fifth and sixth editions of his “Quotations” were published by Little, Brown & Co., the seventh and eighth by Routledge of London, the ninth by Little, Brown & Co. and Macmillan & Co. of London, jointly; and of all these editions between two and three hundred thousand copies must have been sold. Of the seventh and eighth editions, as the author himself tells us, forty thousand copies were printed apart from the English reprint. The ninth edition, published in 1891, had three hundred and fifty pages more than its predecessor, and the index was increased by more than ten thousand lines. In 1881 Mr. Bartlett published his Shakespeare “Phrase-book,” and in February, 1889, he retired from his firm to complete his indispensable Shakespeare “Concordance,” which Macmillan & Co. published at their own risk in London in 1894.

All this immense literary work had the direct support and cooperation of Mr. Bartlett's wife, who was the daughter of Sidney Willard, professor of Hebrew in Harvard University, and granddaughter of Joseph Willard, President of Harvard from 1781 to 1804. She inherited from such an ancestry the love of studious labor; and as they had no children, she and her husband could pursue it with the greatest regularity. [196] Both of them had also been great readers for many years, and there is still extant a manuscript book of John Bartlett's which surpasses most books to be found in these days, for it contains the life-long record of his reading. What man or woman now living, for instance, can claim to have read Gibbon's “Decline and fall” faithfully through, four times, from beginning to end? We must, however, remember that this was accomplished by one who began by reading a verse of the Bible aloud to his mother when he was but three years old, and had gone through the whole of it at nine.

There came an event in Bartlett's life, however, which put an end to all direct labors, when his wife and co-worker began to lose her mental clearness, and all this joint task had presently to be laid aside. For a time he tried to continue his work unaided; and she, with unwearied patience and gentleness, would sit quietly beside him without interference. But the malady increased, until she passed into that melancholy condition described so powerfully by his neighbor and intimate friend, James Russell Lowell, -though drawing from a different example,in his poem of “The Darkened mind,” one of the most impressive, I think, of his poems. While Bartlett still continued his habit of reading, the writing had to be surrendered. His [197] eyesight being erelong affected, the reading also was abandoned, and after his wife's death he lived for a year or two one of the loneliest of lives. He grew physically lame, and could scarcely cross the room unaided. A nervous trouble in the head left him able to employ a reader less and less frequently, and finally not at all. In a large and homelike parlor, containing one of the most charming private libraries in Cambridge,--the books being beautifully bound and lighting up the walls instead of darkening them,--he spent most of the day reclining on the sofa, externally unemployed, simply because employment was impossible. He had occasional visitors, and four of his old friends formed what they called a “Bartlett Club,” meeting at his house one evening in every week. Sometimes days passed, however, without his receiving a visitor, he living alone in a room once gay with the whist-parties which he and Lowell had formerly organized and carried on.

His cheerful courage, however, was absolutely unbroken, and he came forward to meet every guest with a look of sunshine. His voice and manner, always animated and cheerful, remained the same. He had an inexhaustible store of anecdotes and reminiscences, and could fill the hour with talk without showing exhaustion. Seldom going out of the house, unable to take [198] more than very short drives, he dwelt absolutely in the past, remembered the ways and deeds of all Cambridge and Boston literary men, speaking genially of all and with malice of none. He had an endless fund of good stories of personal experience. Were one to speak to him, for instance, of Edward Everett, well known for the elaboration with which he prepared his addresses, Bartlett would instantly recall how Everett once came into his bookstore in search of a small pocket Bible to be produced dramatically before a rural audience in a lecture; but in this case finding none small enough, he chose a copy of Hoyle's “Games” instead, which was produced with due impressiveness when the time came. Then he would describe the same Edward Everett, whom he once called upon and found busy in drilling a few Revolutionary soldiers who were to be on the platform during Everett's famous Concord oration. These he had drilled first to stand up and be admired at a certain point of the oration, and then to sit down again, by signal, that the audience might rather rise in their honor. Unfortunately, one man, who was totally deaf, forgot the instructions and absolutely refused to sit down, because the “squire” had told him to stand up. In a similar way, Bartlett's unimpaired memory held the whole circle of eminent men among whom [199] he had grown up from youth, and a casual visitor might infer from his cheery manner that these comrades had just left the room. During his last illness, mind and memory seemed equally unclouded until the very end, and almost the last words he spoke were a caution to his faithful nurse not to forget to pay the small sum due to a man who had been at work on his driveway, he naming the precise sum due in dollars and cents.

He died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the morning of December 3, 1905, aged eightyfive. Was his career, after all, more to be pitied or envied? He lived a life of prolonged and happy labor among the very choicest gems of human thought, and died with patient fortitude after all visible human joys had long been laid aside. [200]

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