THE FORGOTTEN FOUNDING FATHER: NOAH WEBSTER'S OBSESSION AND THE CREATION OF AN AMERICAN CULTURE
By Joshua Kendall
Putnam, $26.95, 355 pages, illustrated
Founding Father: A member of the convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787
- The American Heritage Dictionary
Noah Webster Jr. had claims to fame, but being a Founding Father was not among them, and no amount of referring to Webster as a Founding Father on the part of his biographer will turn him into one. (Here's a sample reference: "We might prefer not to have among our Founding Fathers such a self-aggrandizing man who was prone to lash out - not only at ideological adversaries, but also at friends and family.")
Nevertheless, Joshua Kendall, a freelance journalist, has written about as interesting a book about Webster as the ornery, obsessive, often arrogant subject permits. And the author is to be commended for pursuing his topic - David McCullough says he switched from Franklin D. Roosevelt, about whom he had originally intended to write, to Harry S. Truman when he discovered what FDR was really like.
Noah Webster found his niche in American history only after he failed to gain access to George Washington's family papers, upon which he had hoped to base the first presidential biography. The disappointed Webster then began to work on what would become his American Dictionary of the English Language, which took him almost three decades to complete and ended up being twice as long as Samuel Johnson's English dictionary.
According to Mr. Kendall, Webster and Johnson had more in common than the production of dictionaries: Both waged "a lifelong battle with mental illness." Webster, like Johnson, "would stumble upon the same creative solution: He, too, would make use of his legendary capacity for nonstop intellectual labor, which he could perform with an obsessive exactitude."
As Mr. Kendall comments early in his book, Webster's "monumental contribution to American letters would be to redo the leading British works on language for a native audience. Lexicography was a perfect fit for Webster's personal tics, as it required collecting and examining ideas that were not one's own (of all the entries in his dictionary, only 'demoralize' would be of his own coinage). And no one could analyze the words of others more scrupulously or with greater elan than Webster."
After surviving an unhappy childhood and graduating from Yale in 1778, Webster became a schoolteacher and lawyer, but he eventually settled on a career in writing and lecturing. His most successful effort before producing his landmark American Dictionary was to improve the Rev. Thomas Dilworth's spelling guide, first published in London in 1740 and seven years later in America by Benjamin Franklin. Webster's goal was to tailor the text to an American audience and to encourage "one standard of elegant pronunciation." All Americans, he thought, "should start sounding like New Englanders."
Meanwhile, Webster, a staunch Federalist, became editor of New York's first daily newspaper, traveled widely and lectured to diminishing audiences "on the government, the population, agriculture, literature, slavery, climate and commerce of the United States" while cultivating contacts with the real Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Franklin. He met and married an attractive, well-born Bostonian, Rebecca Greenleaf, who bore him seven children. "Remarkably," the author writes, "Rebecca would never let him down. For the next half century she would provide the emotional anchor that he so desperately needed."
Whatever his other disappointments, Webster's little blue spelling book became a perennial best-seller, surpassed only by the Bible in sales. When his original copyright expired, his reissued American Spelling Book netted Webster annual revenues of $2,000, and by 1803 he could afford to leave journalism.
The most interesting parts of this biography are the accounts of Webster's prejudices, which leap out of his publications. In an encyclopedia he wrote for children, this is the way he described the people of France: "Ancient authors all agree that the Gauls were a fickle, perfidious people, prompt to action, but impatient of toil, and ever studious of change."
In the preface to his landmark dictionary, Webster harshly criticized Samuel Johnson for a natural indolence that allowed errors throughout his dictionary ("not a single page of Johnson's 'Dictionary' is correct - every page requires amendment or admits of material improvement"), for ignoring the history of words, and even for relying excessively on Shakespeare for examples: "Whatever admiration the world may bestow on the Genius of Shakespeare, his language is full of errors, and ought not to be offered as a model for imitation."
Mr. Kendall calls Webster's dictionary itself "breathtaking" in its comprehensiveness, adding that after Webster, all English lexicographers felt compelled to capture the everyday language as well as the language of literature. Webster estimated that he had added at least 4,000 new scientific terms and hundreds of commonly used words, such as "dyspeptic" and "retaliatory." As the author points out, he "transformed definitions from little more than lists of synonymous terms to tightly knit mini-essays, which highlighted fine distinctions." To illustrate the precision of Webster's definitions, Mr. Kendall compares Johnson with Webster on "ability":
Johnson: "The power to do any thing, depending on skill, riches or strength; capacity, qualification and power"
Webster: "Physical power, whether bodily or mental; natural or acquired; force of understanding; skill in arts or science. Ability is active power, or power to perform as opposed to capacity, or power to receive."
Readers might do well to start their reading toward the last third of this book so as not to get discouraged by the dreary detail of Webster's earlier life.
Priscilla S. Taylor, a writer and editor in McLean, edited Phi Beta Kappa's quarterly Key Reporter for 18 years.
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