In Praise of Quotation–Patrick Madden

Twice in recent months the ghost of William Hazlitt has visited me. The first time, while I was in the shower, a stray phrase suddenly seized my attention: “seeing all this as I do…” I couldn’t quite attach it to a source yet, nor to a reason, but I recognized its importance and held on by mumbling it repeatedly as I rinsed and dried off and got dressed, so that by the time I got downstairs for breakfast, I recognized it as a key phrase in the rumbling crescendo of “On the Pleasure of Hating.” But why had it come to me? To round out an essay I was writing, I realized. The essay was about love, particularly my love for Karina, and the improbability of our ever meeting. It was also about our children, then all prime-number aged (1, 2, 5, 7, 11, 13), and the improbability of them ever being born, much less being born in an order that would briefly become such a mathematically interesting pattern. And it was about the Law of Large Numbers and/or Confirmation Bias, which would declare such idle speculations moot. Hazlitt’s phrase would speak for my feeling that although I recognize that miracles like my marriage and family are statistically inevitable given such vast numbers of people and interactions, I hold to a quasi-magical worldview. “Seeing all this as I do…” It fit perfectly.

When I looked it up, for context, I read surrounding the phrase,

What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads…

This, too, fit my essay, as if written precisely for me. I offered a quick prayer of thanks to the old Romantic.

Which may be why he visited me again, just the other day, as I drove to work. “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” he whispered. “What?” I said aloud, not quite sure I’d heard correctly. “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” he repeated, and this time I recognized his voice, even knew that he was quoting “On the Pleasure of Hating” again, and that he was giving me a part of my essay on spit, which was really an essay on maturing into acceptance of others. Curiously, I found when I looked it up, he seemed to be inviting me to disagree with him. Whereas Hazlitt had argued that “We give up the external demonstration, the brute violence, but cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility,” I was convinced that we can. At least I had changed in some essential way that I no longer felt the same about a friend whom I had wronged, could not reconjure in myself those feelings of disappointment and rage.

I feel quite certain that Hazlitt was OK with that.

The practice of quoting wiser others is engrained in our consciousness from an early age, when we learn, essentially, that our own thoughts are worthless unless they have a point, and our points are invalid unless we back them up with proof from reputable sources. It’s no wonder that, apart from our dutiful classwork, we take a strong disliking to quotation. But essayists use quotation in essays not as ethos-ballast to stabilize arguments nor as linguistic decoration from a lost/loved prose style, but as invitation and conversation as well as humble recognition that we are all influenced, we all think through others’ thoughts, whether we admit it or not.

I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.

— Charles Lamb “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading”

What I mean is that essayists are mature enough to flaunt our indebtedness to others and we want to chat with them, to invite them into our essays as we would a comfortable friend “admitted behind the curtain [to sit] down with the writer in his gown and slippers” (Hazlitt again, from “On the Periodical Essayists”). We’ve long ago discarded the myth of originality as it’s so simplistically sold, and we believe ourselves blessed to be carrying on a centuries-old conversation, exploring the world through old ideas from new perspectives. We likely believe that whatever is well said by another is ours, or, if in a metaphorical mood, “The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterward they make of them honey, which is all theirs,” or, if feeling neither plagiaristic nor fanciful, then “We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates,” which I read years ago and stored in my mind as “We know a man as much by what he quotes as by what he writes.”

I thought it was Emerson, but wanted to confirm both wording and attribution, so I searched online, unsuccessfully plugging in various combinations, in and out of quotation marks, for nearly two hours. [A blight on quotation websites! which clutter search results and never ever attribute their sources!] Thus frustrated, I began to doubt my memory. The only hit came from a site that mashed together four different unattributed quotes on quotation, which I discovered as two from Montaigne, one from Emerson, and close enough to the one I had been seeking, which I could not find anywhere else. Thankfully, Todd the Fashioniste responded promptly to my email about his sources and revealed the original wording. It comes from a likely source, Emerson’s essay on “Quotation and Originality,” which I had open in another tab of my web browser. Had I simply read it, instead of scanning it then returning to my googling, I could have found my elusive quotation in half the time I spent not finding it. [But is this not symptomatic of our times? That we waste our thought in dead-end pursuits instead of reading?]

Of course, I’m not naïve. I recognize that the quotation-includers I’m referring to with my royal we are a small cadre of writers, and that many essays, for many reasons, eschew quotation altogether. So I guess I’m making a subtle argument, which I will now make explicit: We essayists should be proud of our long tradition, which is chock full of quotes, from Montaigne onward, and it would be excellent if we adopted the practice of quoting more often. If my own experience is indicative, then simply reading widely, immersing ourselves in old essays, will make the practice easier, as quotes present themselves almost unbidden whenever we’re dwelling in an essay, when our mind is trained, especially in idle moments, to mull over our subjects. Hazlitt haunts us. Emerson sends us off on a frustrating but ultimately fruitful chase, or perhaps he wishes he had phrased his idea more simply and he offers us a revision.

In any case, if we’re hoping to bend genre and perhaps our natural inclination is to make up some stuff without telling anybody and think that’s it, then maybe we could bend instead in this direction: see our essays as conversations with the past or with our contemporaries, move sideways through ideas in addition to moving forward through narrative. And if we can’t shake the impishness of pulling one over on our readers, perhaps we can do as Montaigne did (and David Shields has recently done, to great buzz, in Reality Hunger*):

[My borrowings] are all, or very nearly all, from such famous and ancient names that they seem to identify themselves enough without me.… I have sometimes deliberately not indicated the author, in order to hold in check the temerity of those hasty condemnations that are tossed at all sorts of writings…. I want them to give Plutarch a fillip on my nose and get burned insulting Seneca in me.

[While I’m at it, perhaps I can be of some practical use. Let me, then, explain my practice of quoting, which I base on many years of noticing how such things are typically done in essays, as well as many years of responding to anxious students who’ve been frightened into worrying more about their citation style than about their literary style. As we’ve just seen, Montaigne was intentionally sloppy with his sources, and his laxity has continued since, though with some tightenings. Basically, most essayists follow the spirit of the law, meaning that we give credit where credit’s due; we don’t pretend to own words we didn’t ourselves write. Here are four common methods for including quoted materials:

1)    Essayists often use block quote format to set off others’ words, usually integrating them wholly into our sentences, sometimes calling on them as counterbalance to our hasty conclusions. Many essayists block quote even short passages, far shorter than the four lines or whatever rule your teachers taught you. After a block quote, we usually give the author’s name, and sometimes the title of the work we’re quoting. Other times we give the author’s name within our own sentences. We almost never, unless forced by finicky editors, give MLA-type full citations of books with publishers’ names and cities and dates and page numbers.

2)    If we don’t block quote, we may subtly slip a quote into our sentences, using quotation marks and an author attribution, either in-line or in quick parenthesis after the quote (again without dates or page numbers).

3)    If the quote is widely known (“be excellent to each other,” for instance), we may simply offer it within quotation marks, to indicate that it’s someone else speaking, but avoid stating the obvious authorship.

4)    Or, if we’re feeling especially roguish, we may fully absorb quoted material, integrating it into our work without quotation marks and without attribution, supposing that certain readers will recognize its source and others will not notice or care. This, in my opinion, is best done in moderation (seldom, with short quotes), and always with a subtle wink, lest one be accused of plagiarism.]

* Funny story: During the Q&A after his keynote address to the NonfictioNOW crowd in Melbourne, Australia, in November 2012, Shields responded to a question about his refusal to cite his sources by saying that in the internet age, readers could easily look up any of the quotes he’d borrowed. To which I challenged that only recently I’d been trying to find an exact translation of Montaigne’s claim that “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition” [I was trying different approximations] and found my entire first page of Google results filled with bloggers [and even the New York Review of Books] attributing the quote directly to David Shields, with no mention of the Father of the Form. I found this disturbing, not so much because I felt Montaigne deserved the credit, but because I envisioned a whole generation roadblocked from discovering the first and greatest essayist (or others). To my recollection, Shields seemed a bit nonplussed. When he’d created Reality Hunger, his web searches got him easily to the original sources, and he seemed not to have considered the ripple effect of fans glutting the internet with faulty attributions.

Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and his essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He’s completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays. He curates an online anthology of classical essays (and other resources) at


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