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Fresh Air Remembers Literary Biographer Justin Kaplan


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Justin Kaplan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who also edited the 16th edition of "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations," published in 1992 and the 17th edition, published in 2002. Justin Kaplan died Sunday at the age 88. His first book, a 1966 biography of Mark Twain, won a National Book Award, as well as a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote biographies of Walt Whitman and Lincoln Steffens.

I spoke with Kaplan about editing "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" in 1992. The first volume was published in 1855, by John Bartlett. In the 16th edition, Kaplan included contemporary quotes, including movie quotes, like this famous line, spoken by Robert Duvall in the film, "Apocalypse Now."

JUSTIN KAPLAN: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory. "Apocalypse Now" is certainly a classic movie about the Vietnam era, but to go beyond that, I gave a fair amount of thought to where people get their quotations from these days. They don't - this is an obvious statement that they don't quote from Shakespeare and the Bible or Virgil as much as they used to, in fact, they don't quote from them at all. If you've listen to the conversation of rather well-educated people for example, meeting at a party, you'll find that the common ground that they immediately find is the movies. And the movies supply the so-called lingua franca of our era and the movies are where most quotations these days come from.

GROSS: Well, public radio listeners will be pleased to know that you quote Garrison Keillor.

KAPLAN: Right. I thought he belonged here. I thought he was absolutely essential.

GROSS: You want to read the quote?

KAPLAN: Well, I put in two quotations from Garrison Keillor. I think both of them are firmly rooted in the American memory by now. (Reading) That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. And, of course, the second is a description of the town. It's (Reading) The little town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve.

GROSS: I wonder if Garrison knows he's in here. Do you let people know that they're going to be in "Bartlett's?"

KAPLAN: No. I let them find out the hard way, simply by looking at the book. They do not get a letter of notification. No.

GROSS: James Brown has made it into "Bartlett's."


GROSS: Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.

KAPLAN: Right.

GROSS: Your choice?

KAPLAN: I believe so. Yes.

GROSS: Now there's a quote that our listeners will probably remember: Love means not ever having to say you're sorry. That's Erich Segal from the movie "Love Story." How did you feel about having that in "Bartlett's" quotation? It's really I think one of the kind of cornier quotes, or it's certainly become that.

KAPLAN: Well, I think it's certainly one of the stupidest single lines of dialogue ever written.


KAPLAN: But it is so stupid and so...

GROSS: ...kind of cornier quotes or certainly become that.

KAPLAN: Well, it's certainly one of the stupidest single lines of dialogue ever written.


KAPLAN: But, you know, it's so stupid and so meaningless that again it became burned in the American memory. And I believe that there's a later movie in which Ryan O'Neal, who played in the original "Love Story," another movie in which Ryan O'Neal quotes the line and says something like I think that's the stupidest thing I ever heard.

But regardless of its stupidity, that's the one thing from "Love Story" that you could count on people remembering.

GROSS: But you didn't feel the need to put in parentheses: I, the editor of this edition, do not really believe this is a profound thought?

KAPLAN: No, uh-uh. I do not indicate when I put a clothespin over my nose.


GROSS: I sometimes think of Bartlett's Quotations as being a book for cheaters, for people who have a luncheon address or a speech they have to give, and they want to say something profound. So they'll quickly find a quote in Bartlett's. And then they'll say it as if these words have guided them all their life, you know, and that the person who they're quoting has been a lifelong influence upon them.

And I wonder how you feel about that?

KAPLAN: Well, that's one use for it. People do use quotations to dress up their own thoughts, to impress people. And Bartlett's as a reference book is an invaluable tool in doing that. But I think it goes way beyond that. I like to think of it not simply as a reference book but as a reading book. It's a rather unique anthology.

It is, after all, not arranged like a dictionary, alphabetically, which is the way most quotation books are arranged. It's arranged chronologically, which seems at first glance rather odd and maybe a little unwieldy as far as using the book is concerned. But what that gives the book is a very special character of a reading book. You can start at the beginning with ancient Egypt, if you choose, and you work your way up to the present time.

And you may have the feeling that you're hearing people of a certain era. You're getting the flavor of a certain era as time moves along.

GROSS: You've - you're a biographer, in addition to editing Bartlett's.

KAPLAN: I'm a biographer, yes.

GROSS: And two of the people who you've written biographies of are two of the most quoted Americans, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Did you often see them quoted out of context or, you know, quoted, you know, with the wrong interpretation?

KAPLAN: Well, Mark Twain is always being either overquoted or misquoted. And I did a certain amount of correction in the Mark Twain section here. I redid all the Mark Twain quotations because I thought the Mark Twain that we value these days is much more Mark Twain the satirist and Mark Twain the vernacular artist. And so I tended to reduce the amount of, you know, pure sentiment, which some people associated with Mark Twain.

In the way of restoring balance, I've restored to Mark Twain the famous quip everyone grumbles about the weather, but no one does anything about it. My predecessors had attributed that to a friend of Mark Twain's named Charles Dudley Warner. And I'm pretty sure that it belongs to Mark Twain.

On the other hand, there's another quip that people have associated with Mark Twain, and that is Wagner's music is - but if you look at Mark Twain's autobiography, he directly attributes that to a fellow humorist named Bill Nye. And that's where the credit goes this time.

GROSS: So it's time for us to wrap up. Should I ask you something silly, like can you leave us with an inspiring quote? You must get asked this all the time. It must be really frustrating.

KAPLAN: I suppose if I had to come up with an inspiring quote, it would be of a distinctly vernacular sort. It's a quotation attributed to Yogi Berra, and I have to underline the word attributed. I like it very much. It runs when you come to a fork in the road, take it.


KAPLAN: And make of that what you want.

GROSS: That's great. Justin Kaplan, recorded in 1992. He died Sunday at the age of 88. Coming up, our tech contributor Alexis Madrigal takes a ride in a self-driving car. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.