Story posted February 24, 2009
Author: Fred R. Shapiro, Editor, Yale Book of Quotations
Probably no other liberal arts college has produced as many truly renowned graduates as has Bowdoin. The Encyclopedia of American History, which prints 450 biographies of the most eminent Americans, includes among this group five Bowdoin alumni: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert E. Peary, Franklin Pierce, and Thomas Brackett Reed.
One way to measure the impact of these and other alumni is through their words, the famous quotations they have written or uttered. We speak a different language because these individuals’ eloquence has influenced and resonated through our history and culture. I am in a unique position to assess such influence, since I have recently compiled a quotation dictionary, The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press), in which I attempted to collect all famous quotations and to use state-of-the-art research to trace their origins more accurately than do other reference works.
A particularly towering quotational figure is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Class of 1825, the only American poet memorialized in Westminster Abbey. No other American writer has left so marked an imprint on our discourse. Common expressions that we use without necessarily realizing they were inspired by Longfellow include “footprints on the sands of time,” “Grim Reaper,” “into each life some rain must fall,” “the patter of little feet,” and “ships that pass in the night.”. The following are lines from his poems that originated those phrases or others:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
—“A Psalm of Life” (1838)
There is a Reaper whose name is Death,
And, with his sickle keen,
He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,
And the flowers that grow between.
—“The Reaper and the Flowers” (1839)
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands.
—“The Village Blacksmith” (1839)
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ’mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
—“The Rainy Day” (1842)
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
—“The Day Is Done” (1844)
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I know not where.
—“The Arrow and the Song” (1845)
This is the forest primeval.
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis.
—"The Song of Hiawatha" (1855)
A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land.
—“Santa Filomena” (1858)
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet.
—“The Children’s Hour” (1859)
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
—“The Landlord’s Tale: Paul Revere’s Ride” (1863)
One if by land and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore shall be,
Ready to ride and sound the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm.
—“The Landlord’s Tale: Paul Revere’s Ride” (1863)
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.
—“The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth” (1874)
There is one other famous quote that I believe was introduced by Longfellow, although the matter is open to dispute. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes includes this rhyme:
There was a little girl, and she had a little curl Right in the middle of her forehead; When she was good, she was very, very good, But when she was bad, she was horrid.
The ODNR states that “most stories point to it coming from Longfellow, but there are unexplained anomalies and it has been noted that the inelegance of the words, particularly ‘horrid,’ contrast strongly with Longfellow’s manner of composition,” and goes on to note that “the earliest recording is on an anonymous broadside, headed ‘Wrong Side Up. A Poem.’ This is known to have been printed before 1870.” However, I have found a number of references starting in the 1880s to Longfellow’s having composed a version of this and sung it to his young daughter in the 1850s. Longfellow is said to have acknowledged his authorship, and his son strongly affirmed it in 1907.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, remarkably also an 1825 graduate, is today an even more celebrated writer than Longfellow, but was not Longfellow’s peer as a quotesmith. Nonetheless his legacy includes the following enduring sayings:
The Scarlet Letter.
—Title of book (1850)
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.
—The Scarlet Letter (1850)
It is very lonesome at the summit! Like a man’s life, when he has climbed to eminence.
—The Marble Faun (1860)
Less familiar, but very impressive as a prefiguring of modern attitudes, is this passage:
It is my belief – yes, and my prophecy, should I die before it happens – that, when my sex shall achieve its rights, there will be ten eloquent women where there is now one eloquent man. Thus far, no woman in the world has ever once spoken out her whole heart and her whole mind. The mistrust and disapproval of the vast bulk of society throttles us, as with two gigantic hands at our throats! We mumble a few weak words, and leave a thousand better ones unsaid.
—The Blithedale Romance (1852)
Bowdoin’s political alumni are headed by Franklin Pierce 1824. Pierce was not one of the more quotable Presidents, but these lines poignantly express his feelings about the Civil War he had tried to forestall:
My purpose, dearest, is immovably taken. I will never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war. Madness and imbecility are in the ascendant. I shall not succumb to them, come what may.
—Letter to Jane Means Appleton Pierce, Mar. 3, 1863
The horror of the Civil War is also vivid in comments by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain 1852, a President of Bowdoin and Governor of Maine who, as a general in the war, won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, commanded the troops receiving the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army, and died in 1914 as a result of lingering wounds from a battle half a century earlier:
But we had with us, to keep and to care for, more than five hundred bruised bodies of men, — men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order — do we call it? — fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command we heard, or His forgiveness we must forever implore?
—The Passing of The Armies (published posthumously in 1915)
Thomas Brackett Reed 1860, twice Speaker of the House of Representatives, was a notably witty politician. Among Reed’s wisecracks were:
A statesman is a politician who is dead.
—Quoted in Los Angeles Times, Oct. 10, 1896
They [two fellow Congressmen] never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.
—Quoted in Samuel W. McCall, The Life of Thomas Brackett Reed (1914)
A contemporary alumnus, George Mitchell ’54, served as Senate Majority Leader, brokered the peace deal for Northern Ireland, and today still makes headlines as author of the Mitchell Report on steroids use in baseball. Mitchell’s sound-bite two decades ago is remembered as the definitive rebuke to self-righteousness in public life:
Although he is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.
—Statement at Senate hearings on Iran-Contra scandal, July 13, 1987
Far removed from the realms of literature and politics, but so important in the social sphere that he profoundly influenced many aspects of our society, was sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey, 1916:
Caricatures of the English-American [sexual] position are performed around the communal campfires, to the great amusement of the [South Pacific] natives, who refer to the position as the “missionary position.”
—Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)
Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior the sooner we will reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.
—Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)
The only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform.
—Quoted in Barbara Rowes, The Book of Quotes (1979)
Concluding this romp through Bowdoin quote-history, I present a miscellany from alums ranging from two Supreme Court justices to the putative discoverer of the North Pole to the author of M*A*S*H to a Secretary of Defense to the founder of Netflix to the winner of the first women’s marathon Olympic gold medal:
It is the irresistible course of events that all men, who have been deprived of their liberty, shall recover this previous portion of their indefeasible inheritance.
—John Brown Russwurm, “The Condition and Prospects of Hayti” (Bowdoin commencement oration) (1826)
Repudiate the repudiators.
—William Pitt Fessenden, Presidential campaign slogan (1868)
Every sovereign State is bound to respect the independence of every other sovereign State, and the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another done within its own territory.
—Melville W. Fuller 1853, Underhill v. Hernandez (1897)
The rights of the freedman, which are not yet secured to him, are the direct reverse of the wrongs committed against him. I never could conceive how a man could become a better laborer by being made to carry an over heavy and wearisome burden which in no way facilitates his work. I never could detect the shadow of a reason why the color of the skin should impair the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
—Oliver Otis Howard, Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major-general, United States Army (1908)
The Eskimo, Ootah, had his own explanation. Said he: “The devil is asleep or having trouble with his wife, or we should never have come back so easily.”
—Robert E. Peary 1877, The North Pole (1910)
The Constitution was built for rough as well as smooth roads. In time of war the nation simply changes gears and takes the harder going under the same power.
—Harold H. Burton 1909, Duncan v. Kahanamoku (dissenting opinion) (1946)
We’re the pros from Dover [developed by the character Hawkeye as a way of claiming to be a pro from an ambiguous golf club in order to wangle invitations to play free rounds].
—H. Richard Hornberger ’45, M*A*S*H (1968)
If we are to save our children then we must become people they will look up to. Children need heroes now more than ever because the poor children of this nation live with monsters every day. Monsters deprive them of heat in the winter, they don't fix their sinks and toilets, they let garbage pile up in their hallways, they kick them out of their homes, they beat them, shoot them, stab them -- sometimes to death -- they rape their bodies and their minds. Sometimes they lurk under the stairs. They scuttle around in the dark; you hear them in the walls gnawing, squeaking, occasionally biting a little finger.
—Geoffrey Canada ’74, Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America (1995)
While we are not and cannot become the world’s policeman, neither can we become a prisoner of world events, isolated and tucked safely away in a continental cocoon.
—William S. Cohen ’62, Statement at Senate hearing on his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, Jan. 22, 1997
I was on the way to the gym and I realized, “Wow, video stores could operate like a gym with a flat membership fee.” And it was like, “Hm, I wonder why no one’s done that before?”
Reed Hastings ’83, Quoted in television interview on 60 Minutes, Dec. 3, 2006
Now I’m down to 70 or 80. That’s all I can do [explaining why, at 50 years of age, she no longer runs 120 miles a week].
—Joan Benoit Samuelson ’79, Quoted in New York Times, Apr. 13, 2008
Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary. “The Rainy Day”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow