Emily Morison Beck, who edited three editions of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, adding comments by an astronaut, a prizefighter and several folk singers to a collection more often associated with poets, philosophers and world-class statesmen, died March 28.
She suffered kidney failure and died at home in Canton, Mass., according to her son, Cameron Beck. She was 88.
Beck, who was the daughter of Samuel Eliot Morison, a naval historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, also edited a selection of her father's writings, "Sailor Historian," which was his last book before he died in 1976.
"An interest in writers and writing both fiction and nonfiction led me from college into trade publishing and various editing projects," Beck said later in life. "The most challenging one was editing Bartlett's Familiar Quotations."
Beck was one of a group of editors who worked on the book's 13th edition (1955) and was the editor of the 14th (1968) and 15th (1980) editions.
The work was "literary archeology," she said. She considered Bartlett's a record of human efforts to express basic human truths.
The quotations found in Bartlett's "reveal to us that people from ancient times, from the first written utterances, can speak to us today in ways that inspire, inform, comfort, entertain," Beck wrote in the preface to the 15th edition.
Over the years, Beck expanded the number of quotations by women, including contemporary essayist Joan Didion ("Writers are always selling somebody out") and the late poet Sylvia Plath ("Dying is an art, like everything else"). Beck also pruned outdated entries by what she referred to as "members of the crappy poetry society," particularly nature poets.
Taking her cue from John Bartlett, who published the first Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in 1855 to record "numerous quotations that have become household words," Beck added television anchorman Walter Cronkite's line, "And that's the way it is," from the close of his news broadcasts.
She also included astronaut Neil Armstrong's message from the moon in 1969: "That's one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind"; prizefighter Muhammad Ali's advice to aspiring boxers: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"; and author Mario Puzo's "Godfather" promise: "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."
A music lover, she inserted lyrics by Bob Dylan ("How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?").
She also added what she considered to be oversights ("Bah Humbug!" by Charles Dickens) and corrected several existing entries in the book. "God forbid," an epithet attributed to the Gospel of Luke in previous editions, was moved to its earliest reference in Genesis.
"Let no one suppose the editor, Emily Morison Beck, has had her nose in a book since she brought out the 14th edition in 1968," James Atlas wrote in a review of the 15th edition of Bartlett's for the New York Times in March 1981. "Indeed, the new Bartlett's could hardly be more with it ... "
Though she was the first editor of Bartlett's to enlist a staff of consulting scholars -- historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and economist John Kenneth Galbraith among them -- she also found help in unlikely places.
Beck was at a hair salon reading a magazine when she came across a quote by Henry James: "We work in the dark -- we do what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." She had long been searching for the source of the quote, which turned out to be from James' short story "The Middle Years." Beck claimed it for her personal motto.
Born in Boston and nicknamed "Wendy" after the winsome character from James Barrie's "Peter Pan," she graduated from Radcliffe College in 1937. She married Harry Brooks Beck, a lawyer, in 1946.
She worked at several publishing houses before editors at Little, Brown asked her to work with them on the 13th edition of Bartlett's. From then on, collecting quotes was a way of life. "It became an avocation," Beck told the Bangor Daily News in 1997. "I was doing it all the time."
While she was raising her three children, she worked in a second-floor room of the family's home in Canton, south of Boston.
"Her work was very important to her," Cameron Beck said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week. But he said she left it behind at the end of the day. "As children we were aware of what she was doing, but she never came downstairs after work and prattled about quotations," he said.
Beck is survived by a sister, two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren. Her husband died in 1969.