By Anne Matthews
December 7, 2012
She gave up her horses, reduced the number of her servants … and constantly lamented her poverty. Someone suggested that she should go begging for alms, wearing her seven ropes of pearls and playing her Stradivarius. … [She sent her museum director] to the corner store every day to buy an orange. Frightened as he was of his patroness, one day he decided he would save himself a trip and buy two oranges. The scale of his purchase surprised the clerk. “The old lady going to throw a party?” he asked.
—John Walker on Isabella Stewart Gardner, Self-Portrait with Donors, 1974
When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
—Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, 1850
Estate management is a boorish occupation. Today Rezun told lies; I flew into a rage and, following the loathsome custom, said: “Flog him.” … I’ll never reprimand anyone again before two o’clock in the afternoon. I asked his pardon and gave him three roubles, but I suffered agonies.
—Leo Tolstoy, November 1858
[The customers] gave no sign of knowing the country was in the very depths of an economic disaster. They were men who had been sheltered all their lives and were sheltered yet. Their world was the world of their needs alone … efficiency experts with private means, personnel managers from banking families, men who had been born to ownership of ships or banks or mines or wells—the whole contented clan of white-collar foxes. … Love’s dividends came in single bills, but hatred’s comes by twenties.
—Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side, 1956
I’ve been with your father and mother for two days now, and I see no signs of anything going wrong. The only trouble with them is that they’re too rich. That makes them fretful: it’s like teething.
—Edith Wharton, The Children, 1928
In 1929 there was a luxurious club car which ran each week-day morning into the Pennsylvania Station. … Near the door there was placed a silver bowl with a quantity of nickels in it. Those who needed a nickel in change for the subway ride downtown took one. They were not expected to put anything back in exchange; this was not money. … It was only five cents.
—Fred Schwed Jr., Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? 1940
As I went to put [the day’s newspapers] on the hall table, Mrs Clydesdale came down the stairs. I went to hand her the papers. … She didn’t speak a word, she just stood there looking at me as though she could hardly believe that someone like me could be walking and breathing. … Then at last she spoke. She said, ‘Langley, never, never on any occasion ever hand anything to me with your bare hands, always use a silver salver. Surely you know better than that.’ … Tears started to trickle down my cheeks; that someone would think you were so low that you couldn’t even hand them anything.
—Margaret Powell, Below Stairs, 1968
Money is a kind of poetry.
—Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous, 1957
You hear a lot of jazz about soul food. …The people in the ghetto want steaks. Beef steaks. I wish I hadthepowertoseetoitthatthe bourgeoisie really did have to make it on soul food.
—Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice, 1968
To my surprise the muskrat came almost to my feet with his little breakfast of greens. He was young [and] gave me a friendly glance from time to time as he nibbled. … He had not, it seemed, heard very much about men. I shuddered. Only the evening before I had heard a man describe, with triumphant enthusiasm, how he had killed a rat in the garden because the creature had dared to nibble his petunias. … Yet this creature with the gray, appealing face wanted very little: a strip of shore to coast up and down, sunlight and moonlight, some weeds from the deep water. … “You had better run away now,” I said softly. … Perhaps after all this was not Eden.
—Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time, 1960
Making money cannot be an end in itself— at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. … And we cannot just go on spending. There will come a point when we will be satiated or disgusted or both. Or will we? … If the ultimate end of industry is idleness, if we labor and create merely so that our descendants can snuggle down to an eternity of daytime television, then all progress is, as Orwell put it, “a frantic struggle toward an objective which [we] hope and pray will never be reached.”
—Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, “In Praise of Leisure,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2012
Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet
The unexpected death of some old lady.
—Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1819
Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those
musty saints whose bones and bleeding wounds appall
good taste, those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas,
books Moroni etched in tedious detail? We do; we need more worlds. This one will
—John Updike, “Religious Consolation,” Americana and Other Poems, 2001
[In the Bastille, my] dinner consisted of an excellent soup; a succulent slice of beef, a boiled leg of capon, dripping with fat and falling off the bone; a small plate of fried artichokes in a marinade, some spinach, a very nice Cresonne pear, fresh grapes, a bottle of old Burgundy, and the best Moka coffee. … There was no dessert … but, on the whole, I found that one dined very well in prison.
—Jean-François Marmontel, 1760
We may see the small value God has for riches, by the people he gives them to.
—Alexander Pope, Thoughts on Various Subjects, 1727
Anne Matthews collects the quotations for Commonplace Book and is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.