- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

As s child, I remember being astonished when my mother told me that the language we spoke was not American. After all, I was an American, born and bred. How could it be that I spoke English, the language of a place I had never seen and was only dimly aware of? Now, having read Jill Lepore's book, I realize that if my mother had been Noah Webster he would have thrilled by my question.
With relish he would have responded, "Yes, my son, you speak American because you are American." For uniting linguistic and national identities was the driving passion of Webster's life and the inspiration for his dictionary, among other projects. The problem, as the author makes clear, is that people have a tendency to put tools to their own uses, not those of their inventors.
"A is for American" is a collection of entertaining stories about a series of characters (human, that is), all of whom spent a significant portion of their lives in the United States, and all of whose lives were decisively shaped by what would today be called communications technology. Back then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, this took the form of diverse alphabets, a syllabary, the Morse code and, ultimately, the telephone. The heroes of this book belong to the standard American pantheon of Great American Inventors: Samuel Morse, Noah Webster, Sequoyah, Alexander Graham Bell. But the author has exploited all the connotations of the term "character" to draft a charming little book about the quirky origins some influential early American inventions.
One great attraction of the book is the writer's persistent efforts to set the achievements of great men in the real and rather unconventional contexts of their own lives. Samuel Morse was a failed painter who originally composed a telegraphic code in order to help the United States fend off what he believed to be imminent conquest by the reactionary Catholic powers of Europe, led by the Pope and spearheaded by Irish immigrants.
Webster was a cantankerous pedant whose greatest achievements, his spelling primer and his dictionary of American English, only underscored the failure of his life's dream. He wanted to declare linguistic independence by moving American English visually and vocally away from British English, but his fellow Americans would not cooperate. They rejected his phonetic orthography and persisted in calling their language English. Finally, just as a common language had not held the 13 colonies to Britain, it did not prevent armies of Southerners and Northerners from slaughtering each other in the Civil War.
The lifelong passion of Bell was to teach deaf people to speak English. Instead, the man who would end his life railing against the surge of non-English speaking immigration at the turn of the century, invented a powerful communications device the deaf could never use, but illiterate immigrants of any linguistic background could with great benefit. The disjunction between the intentions of inventors and the popular applications of their inventions is a running theme of the book.
The author's recounting of the standard story of invention and progress includes a number of less famous individuals whose lives were no less transformed by their relationship to communications technology. There is Abd al-Rahman, the African chieftan's son whose ability to write in Arabic (good Muslim that he was) helps secure his release from slavery, after some 30 years on a Mississippi plantation.
The story of the slave is balanced by that of the slave master, William Thornton, an idealist who designed the capital building in Washington, D.C., and hoped to colonize Africa with his freed West Indian slaves. Like Webster, Thornton strove to create a more practical and phonetic alphabet. But whereas Webster wanted his alphabet to distinguish American English speakers from British English speakers, Thornton viewed his alphabet as the key to a "universal alphabet" through which all of the world's languages could be expressed on equal terms. No one adopted his alphabet and he did not free his slaves.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, founder of American sign language, together with the inventors' wives and families round out Jill Lepore's tale. Gallaudet is perhaps the lynchpin of her story. As she explains, reaching out to those outside the usual sphere of communication was one of the primary inspirations for virtually all of her characters to devote their time on strange and unpopular experiments of sight and sound. Many of them, and most of their financial backers, hoped the new communications tools would facilitate the conversion of heathens around the globe to Christianity.
Gallaudet used sign language to proselytize deaf Americans who had for so long stood outside the reach of the Word of the Bible. It worked so well he believed he had discovered the "natural language" through which all human beings could communicate, and thus be converted, whether they lived in Hawaii or China.
The Darwinian Bell dreamed different dreams. He wanted the deaf to be able to speak and thus marry hearing English-speakers. He hoped to prevent a self-perpetuating population of deaf, and thus socially segregated, people from taking root in American soil. His nativist fantasies of national unity in the face of continued immigration bring us back to another theme of the book: the tension between parochial nationalism and universalistic claims inherent in the Founding documents of the United States.
With a certain sense of shock,the author points out that not everybody used communications technology to join the American "Republic of Letters." Sequoyah, who never learned English, invented his syllabary in order to preserve the cultural and political unity of the Cherokees in the face of American expansion. When a number of Cherokees began to adapt American-style laws, language, and labor systems (i.e. slavery), Sequoyah moved west. His syllabary allowed eastern and western Cherokee to retain an unprecedented degree of contact.
When the Trail of Tears forcibly rejoined the two halves of the people, Sequoyah and his syllabary were there to peacefully unite the nation. He eventually died in northern Mexico, searching for a lost tribe of fellow Cherokees to unite to his kinsmen with his syllabary. Likewise, Abd al-Rahman used every means within his limited power to see that he and his slave family were freed from American slavery and settled back in Africa. While he professed an interest in Christianity to secure the financial support of northern abolitionists he never gave up his Islamic faith.
Jill Lepore ends her book by juxtaposing the communications revolution she describes with the one we are experiencing now. In contrast to the idealism permeating her story, our current communications revolution seems dominated by fantasies of commercial wealth. She believes that "in the transformation from a 'republic of letters' to a 'digital economy,' we've replaced characters with numbers."
This cryptic nostalgia for the early Republic is about the closest the book comes to articulating a higher intellectual agenda. But if there is any point to the writer's stories, then we must expect the new communications technology to be put to as many unforeseen, subversive, and contradictory purposes as those of the past have been. After all, globalization, like the American "Republic of Letters," is not for everyone, regardless of what its proponents might think.

Evan Haefeli is a lecturer in the department of history at Princeton University. He is completing a book, together with Kevin Sweeney, a professor at Amherst College, on the 1704 French and Indian raid on Deerfield, Mass.

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