Who Said, "Go West, Young Man" - Quote Detective Debunks Myths

Recently I published a book titled The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press), intended to supplant Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as the most comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date quotation dictionary. Publishing a major new reference book is not something that happens very often nowadays — we live in an era when most people look to Wikipedia or a Google search for their reference information — so it may be of interest to describe how I came to do such a thing, and the role that The Catholic University of America played in my journey to that point.

My fascination with quotations goes back a long way. When I was about 10, my father, who was a structural engineer and not at all a literary type, brought home a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations he had purchased at the Strand used-book store in New York City. Something about the sound bites in Bartlett's and the easy window they offered into literature and history appealed to my dilettantish mind, and I devoured the volume. Later, when I was an undergraduate at MIT, I became editor of a popular quotation feature in an alternative student newspaper.

My academic wanderings next led me to Harvard Law School — I said I was a dilettante — where I was a notably indifferent student. A brief stint as an indifferent lawyer ended when my wife, who was a librarian, suggested that I might enjoy becoming a law librarian more than practicing law. I had never thought of that alternative but it immediately appealed to me, and I enrolled in Catholic University's School of Library and Information Science in 1981.

CUA's library school offered me a structure into which to pour my previously strong but amateurish interests in research and information. I learned there about the then-nascent world of online database searching. Equally important, I worked while in library school as a circulation assistant at Mullen Library, under the supervision of Adele Chwalek, who was then head of circulation. Adele is a rare example of a person of both great strength (in her office, she would often hold a bar of metal which she bent and unbent with her bare hands while talking) and great warmth. The first day I worked for her she assigned me to photocopy 700 pages, perhaps testing whether my Ivy League-ish background made me too full of myself to do routine work. I learned a lot about libraries and life from her.

After getting my library degree I became a law librarian at New York Law School and later at Yale Law School, where I am now an associate director and lecturer in legal research. In 1987 an editor at Oxford University Press asked me if there was some kind of legal reference book that no one had done before that I would be interested in compiling. I suggested an authoritative legal quotation dictionary. The press accepted the proposal, and the result was The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations.

In compiling the dictionary I found that the area of quotations was dominated by misinformation. I set out to do something novel, capturing all the famous American legal quotations and doing research to trace the origin of each quote back to its original source. The book was very well received, and the idea grew in my mind to use the same approach in a general quotation dictionary. The more I studied existing general quotation volumes, the more I found that even the most respected of them, even the iconic Bartlett's that I had revered since childhood, were riddled with inaccuracies. With this in mind, I signed a contract with Yale University Press to produce The Yale Book of Quotations.

Using my library science training and knowledge of online database searching, I found that I was able to revolutionize our knowledge of quotation origins. The time I worked on The Yale Book of Quotations coincided with an explosive proliferation of electronic resources allowing millions of historical texts — books, newspapers, journals, legal documents — to be searched to find the earliest occurrences of quotations, proverbs and other sayings. The employment of these spectacular new tools, along with other sophisticated research methods, allowed me to discover more- precise sources and to correct erroneous attributions for many of the most familiar quotes. The Yale Book of Quotations now proves that "Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket" did not originate with Mark Twain; nor did "War is hell" originate with William Tecumseh Sherman; nor did "I cried all the way to the bank" originate with Liberace (rather, the originators of these lines were Andrew Carnegie, Napoleon Bonaparte and Walter Winchell, respectively). And these are only three of the many quotations whose attributions needed correcting.

A good example of the research and results contained in my book is the quote "Go West, young man." The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations says that the newspaper editor Horace Greeley coined it in his 1850 book Hints Toward Reform, then John Babson Lane Soule used it in an 1851 editorial in the Terre Haute (Ind.) Express. Bartlett's, however, says that the Soule article inspired Greeley to use the quotation in an editorial in the New York Tribune. The Oxford English Dictionary gives an uncharacteristically vague citation to Soule.

I read through Hints Toward Reform, as well as searching an online text of the book, and found that the quotation does not appear there. Thomas Fuller, a research editor for The Yale Book of Quotations, read the 1851 issues of the Terre Haute Express at the Library of Congress and found that these words did not appear there, either. Fuller's sleuthing and my running "Go West, young man" through many historical book and periodical databases yielded no trace of the attribution to Soule before 1890, when the Chicago Mail of June 30 attributes it to him. Fuller concluded in an article in the September 2004 issue of the Indiana Magazine of History that "John Soule had nothing whatsoever to do with the phrase" and he was also unable to discover "Go West, young man" anywhere in Greeley's writings, including those in the New York Tribune and other sources where various people have claimed it occurred. I did, however, uncover the following quote cited in a recent biography of Greeley: "If any young man is about to commence the world, we say to him, publicly and privately, Go to the West" (from the Aug. 25, 1838, issue of the newspaper New Yorker). "Go West, young man" may well have been a paraphrase of this and other advice given by Greeley.

The quote runs in The Yale Book of Quotations with a 300-word explanation of its attribution and misattribution over the years.

In addition to its pathbreaking research, The Yale Book of Quotations is the first major quotation compendium to emphasize modern and American materials and to fully represent such areas as popular culture, children's literature, sports, computers, politics, law and the social sciences (while still including the best-known quotations from older literary and historical sources). I am proud that, although the book has been written up in dozens of periodicals and I have received hundreds of e-mails and letters about it, there have been almost no cases of famous quotes pointed out to me as having been left out of the book.

Reprinted with permission, CUA Magazine, November 2007

cover of The Yale Book of QuotationsThe Yale Book of Quotations
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