Friday, September 16, 2011

The crabby guy behind those familiar red books

All the classrooms in my elementary school had windows along one side of the room, and beneath the windows was a deep counter over deep bookshelves. As I recall, about 35-40 dictionaries lined the shelves in each room – more than one for each student. They were the Webster's kind with the red cover, although I always thought they were pink (probably because they were a bit faded). But no one ever thought about the work that must go into making a dictionary.

Noah Webster was born in 1758 in Connecticut of a prestigious Puritan Yankee lineage. Although he tried variously to be a lawyer, a school teacher, and a newspaperman with various degrees of success, his talents always led him to write. Not stories or anything creative; instead Webster was drawn to compile information. He gained early fame with The American Spelling Book in 1783 (actually not named such until 1787) which helped many young people with its innovative approach to spelling. But his more lasting fame didn't come until 1828 when he published the first American dictionary (which was also the last time a dictionary was compiled primarily by a single person).

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American CultureIn The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall we learn of the brilliant but frequently self-centered and cantankerous man who's life's passions were consumed by books and words. The name Webster might be remembered but the dictionary is more often mistakenly credited to his better-remembered cousin Daniel Webster. But part of Webster's inspiration to create a dictionary came from his conviction that America needed to be separate and individual from Great Britain. Americans didn't always use the same words as their English-speaking relatives across the water, nor did they speak the same way. He felt it was important to establish and foster a culture that was uniquely American – and then to define that culture through its language.

Kendall has written an insightful and interesting biography about this "forgotten founding father." Webster isn't the kind of personality that invites warmth and reverence, but Kendall brings him to life in a way that is anything but ‘dry as a dictionary.’ Each chapter begins with a word and definition that sets the tone. He explains that Webster probably suffered from a mental illness or "personality disorder," although he never explains what it was (maybe some form of autism?) except that it drove him to compile statistics and facts and definitions. It also made him a frequently prickly person to be around – especially for those with different political views. But it also makes him an interesting biographical subject behind those heavy red books that have been so familiar to many generations.

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