Arts & Culture

You can quote them

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the <i>Yale Book of Quotations</i>.
Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

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To keep this column somewhat grounded in Yaleiana, I have written about the most famous quotations by Yale alumni (March/April 2007) and the most notable coinages by Yalies (January/February 2009). It was inevitable, then, that I would get around to compiling the most famous quotations by fictitious Yale alumni.

Quotations from imaginary Yalies turn out to be abundant, so I will devote more than one column to them. This installment deals with the most renowned. Within that category we must give pride of place to a single book by a Princeton dropout. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a supreme feat of artistic empathy, made the narrator of The Great Gatsby an alumnus of Yale rather than Princeton. Thus we have such immortal passages as the following from Nick Carraway, Class of 1915:

  • I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

  • They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

  • Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.

  • So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


One year later, Fitzgerald was still in the New Haven mindset, and his story “The Rich Boy” had a Yale graduate named Anson Hunter, Class of 1917, as its protagonist. Hunter had a quotation that has become as celebrated as any of the Carrawayisms:

  • Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful.

These lines are remembered because of their satirization by Ernest Hemingway in his 1936 story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”:

  • He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them [the rich] and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how someone had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money.

At first glance, the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations does not seem to contain any Yalie lines. The characters uttering “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “I coulda been a contender,” or “Go ahead, make my day” probably weren’t Ivy Leaguers. But then there is quote number 17. In Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane was described thus: “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Switzerland—he was thrown out of a lot of colleges.” Could it be that his renowned last utterance deserves a place among Yale soundbites?

  • Rosebud.

Or would that be unfair to the other institutions with a claim to educating Kane? Maybe the honor of alma mater should be pinned on that school in Cambridge. After all, it was Harvard that expelled future publisher William Randolph Hearst—the model for Kane—after he sent engraved silver chamber pots to his professors. 

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