Arts & Culture

You can quote them

Atheists, foxholes, and the smallest room in the house.

Yale Law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

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In quotation research, discovery is a continuing process and a collaborative one. Every week brings breakthroughs from my own investigations and from the contributions of talented quote fans around the world. Following are two of the most notable recent findings.

"There are no atheists in the foxholes."
In the Yale Book of Quotations, I listed this saying under the name of William Thomas Cummings, an American priest. Cummings had been quoted in a 1942 book by Carlos P. Romulo, I Saw the Fall of the Philippines.

A reader, Bonnie Taylor-Young, then pointed out that Romulo's book described his experiences during the American defense of Bataan through June 1942. She added, "I think it's worth noting that a Lieut. Col. Warren J. Clear, who also served at Bataan, used the expression in an interview printed in U.S. newspapers in the middle of April [1942]."

More interestingly, Taylor-Young searched online newspapers and found that similar phrases had been used during World War I:

"Now, friends, there may be some among you who have thought lightly of religion, and others who are afraid to press its claims on children especially. For you I have this word. 'There are no atheists in the trenches.'"
-- Oakland Tribune, May 6, 1918

"When Ralph Connor was over here he said that you can not find a man in the trenches who does not believe in immortality. It is true. There are no atheists over there when those big shells come over their heads."
-- "Harry Lauder Interviewed; Famous Comedian is Now Harry Lauder, Evangelist," Olean (New York) Evening Herald, December 22, 1917

"I am sitting in the smallest room of my house . . ."

Even the Yale Book of Quotations makes mistakes. One of the most magnificent witticisms from the arts was by German composer Max Reger (1873-1916). Responding to a negative review by Rudolf Louis of his Sinfonietta (1906), Reger is said to have shot back: "Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe Ihre Kritik von mir. Im nächsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein." (I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.)

In the YBQ I noted that Nigel Rees, in his excellent Cassell's Humorous Quotations, "suggests that an earlier version of this jab appeared in a letter by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich in 1785." But, I added, "no such anecdote is found in the book said to be the source."

After my volume was published, Nigel gently insisted that his Earl of Sandwich reference was correct, and I looked again at the crumbling copy of the book in question -- George Selwyn and His Contemporaries (1843), by John Heneage Jesse -- at the Sterling Memorial Library. This time, I found the older anecdote: "When Mr. Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland, deserted the standard of Fox for that of Pitt, he sent, in justification of his apostacy, a circular letter to his former political colleagues. The reply of Lord Sandwich [John George Montagu] was sufficiently laconic: 'Sir,' he said, 'your letter is before me, and will presently be behind.'"

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