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The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture

3.47  ·  Rating Details  ·  373 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
America's own The Professor and the Madman: the story of Noah Webster, author of the first dictionary of American English-and a forgotten leader during a turning point in our nation's history.

Noah Webster's name is now synonymous with the dictionary he created, but although there is much more to his story than that singular achievement, his rightful place in American h
Hardcover, 355 pages
Published April 14th 2011 by G.P. Putnam's Sons (first published 2011)
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Jun 01, 2011 Brian rated it really liked it
(full review appears at the Washington Independent Review of Books)

I don’t like Noah Webster. He’s arrogant and antisocial. He’s obsessive-compulsive and anal-retentive. He’s a shameless self-promoter, a notorious griper and, later in life, a pious blowhard. And as Joshua Kendall shows us in his fine biography Forgotten Founding Father, those were exactly the kinds of traits that made Noah Webster so good at what he did. Indeed, as a compulsive compiler and hunter and gatherer of information, We
Jenny Brown
Apr 15, 2012 Jenny Brown rated it really liked it
It's refreshing to read a biography of someone who isn't well known to the general reader. This book brings alive the world of New England from the period of the revolution through the 1840s, giving us a sense of how a life could unfold throughout that period. Webster was involved with most of the people who shaped America's government and culture throughout his lifetime, and of course, he too ended up in their number.

What keeps me from giving this book 5 stars is that Kendall did not support th
Jun 04, 2012 Mary rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Firstly, not every man who picked up a pen around the time of the American Revolution is a forgotten founding father. This is most certainly true of Noah Webster Jr. who may have been the 18th century equivalent of the crazy old man who calls the local news station everyday.
Secondly, this book was about as interesting as choosing between bisque and eggshell paint. While there were moments that piqued interest they couldn't be maintained.
Anyway, I hope my next non-fiction selection is better tha
Brian Eshleman
Jan 28, 2015 Brian Eshleman rated it it was ok
This work was a significant disappointment. I approached it expecting to get a front row seat on the foundation of the creation of American culture through the words we use. I also expected to be able to appreciate a man so driven by a love for words and a love for his country that he undertook this as his life's labor.

It seems, much as I would wish it otherwise, that what drove Noah Webster to codify the language of his country was perpetual disdain for what he viewed as nonstandard English. Th
May 21, 2011 Verena rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have enjoyed reading biographies of founding fathers and mothers (John Adams by David McCullough; Benjamin Franklin, an American Life by Walter Isaacson; Founding Mothers, the Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts.) So I assumed I would find equal enjoyment in reading The Forgotten Founding Father, Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. I did enjoy learning about this fascinating man who made amazing contributions to the growth of America as an independent nat ...more
Sep 06, 2011 Jendy rated it it was ok
I wish someone else had written this book. Kendall is a seriously flawed writer. He seems to have done a lot of research, but not enough in all areas. I think he made some broad conclusions about Webster's character (neurotic, ocd?)and influence (articulating "american culture" for the first time?) in order to start writing his book, but he doesn't support his conclusions. And he jumps around in time way too much!

Since I have so many ancestors who lived in New England at teh same time, I did fin
Jan 30, 2014 Cindy rated it really liked it
Webster's habits provide insight into why he did things, as well as, why his children were as they were. Habitually counting & other habits (Aspergers, slight autism??).
Nov 06, 2014 Christopher rated it it was ok
Moderately interesting biography of America's chief lexicographer that's marred by an overestimation of his worth to the American Revolution.

At one point the author suggests that a the handful of articles Webster wrote in support of the new Constitution was more influential than The Federalist Papers. Such "puffery" abounds. What would/should have been a more straightforward biography of a man known for his dictionary instead becomes an attempt to align him with the Founders (when he was simply
Chris Burd
Rating and reviewing this book is a bit more difficult than most books I've read recently. I actually really enjoyed it - and yet can point to some fairly significant flaws in a book that claims to be a biography of Noah Webster as a "Forgotten Founding Father".

On the positive side, the author did well, I thought, at neither canonizing or demonizing Noah Webster. Webster was, it seems clear, a very difficult character to like. I also thought that the descriptions of Webster's traits and behavior
Oct 31, 2014 Sterling rated it liked it
This is the third in my series of American history books this year. I was hoping for more intellectual history in this work, but it was more about the major life events of Noah Webster. I would've liked more discussion on the lexicographical work of Webster and more commentary on his uniqueness in this area. The book touched on a few of his strange spellings (maybe there were only a few) and did talk about specific word definitions and how Webster dealt with them at times. It did discuss Webster ...more
Peter Mayeux
Aug 11, 2014 Peter Mayeux rated it really liked it
The author provides an interesting, chronological insight into the life and times of Noah Webster. This narrative offers a profile of this Webster's personal and professional life, unrelated to his relative Daniel Webster. It presents a good sense of who he was -- his fears, dreams, hopes, compulsions, obsessions, and alienations. It traces his troubled psychological health as he developed this complex undertaking.

Through his work developing America's first dictionary and other related publicat
I've read little about Noah Webster. He was a native of Connecticut. He significantly impacted how Americans thought about themselves post Revolution and encouraged the adoption of the constitution over the original confederation which granted much less power to the centralized government. He considered Franklin and metor and Washington an admirer. He ran a news magazine/newspaper for several years with the first daily newspaper in New York. He was one of the most prolifican authors of his time. ...more
Sep 03, 2013 Jessica rated it did not like it
DULL. Some parts were super interesting, but for the most part the author skips around in his narrative and just doesn't really have a gift for writing history, in my opinion.
Ruth Ann
Apr 02, 2014 Ruth Ann rated it liked it
I listened to this book on CD while driving. Many parts were pretty dry with all the facts about Noah Webster's life that the author wanted to convey. I did not find Mr. Webster to be a particularly admirable man except for his perseverance in finally completing his dictionary after years of working on it. In fact, Noah Webster seems to have had psychological problems that hindered his relationships with other people, especially his family. However, at the time he lived, from 1758 to 1843, men r ...more
Mar 05, 2015 Iain rated it really liked it
An informative read about the scholar who would do his upmost to shape and define American culture once the young republic emerged as an independent nation in 1783. Noah Webster was a polymath with opinions and ideas on everything. His primary fascination was language, in particular his language of English. The spirit of independence drove many ideas of separation from the mother country of England and the way American speak and spell was no different. Webster was America's Samuel Johnson, the n ...more
Jun 03, 2015 Jennifer rated it liked it
I learned a lot about Noah Webster and the English language by reading this book. However, it bogged down in details of his days too often. It was interesting to me that he displayed obsessive compulsive tendencies. He also had difficulty handling social situations. His youngest daughter was declared mad, but the book says her madness may have been severe autism before anyone knew what that was. Noah's social issues with a few other things made me wonder is he may have had a more mild autism or ...more
Aug 05, 2015 J.S. rated it really liked it
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 Con
Jun 09, 2013 Gene rated it liked it
This was an interesting book. A good biographical sketch of Noah Webster. Although the author alludes to it, he never quite comes out and admits that NW was probably a garden variety OC with a stern, strict, and somewhat puritanical New Englander's view of everything. I don't fault NW for this in any way, he was who he was. In fact, if he were not of such a nature his dictionaries might never have become what they are today.

I take some exception to the title of the book as somewhat misleading bu
Margaret Sankey
Nov 07, 2011 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Publishers have insisted on entirely too many "Forgotten Founding Father" titles--George Whitfield,John Winthrop, John Varick are all candidates. Kendall's biography of Noah Webster is actually more about the cultural side of the new republic, from the pressure cooker of New England intellectualism (the sheer number of Webster's Yale classmates who had nervous breakdowns, were anorexic, attempted suicide or achieved it is staggering), sectional differences, local public lectures, powerful minist ...more
John Harder
Aug 07, 2012 John Harder rated it liked it
Noah Webster was a genius, and if you need confirmation of this, you should just ask him. Ego is rarely an appealing quality, but at least Noah had the attribute of being a prickly hypochondriac to fall back upon.

Mr. Webster had the good fortune of being able to direct his worst personal qualities and neurosis into productive activity. Words were like a balm to his nervous disposition – when he felt anxious he would fill a tub full of adjectives, take a long soak and towel off with a spelling b
Sep 14, 2013 Ashley rated it liked it
This book has history, writing, and language all rolled into one! I found Webster’s struggles to find his way in life particularly inspiring and encouraging. He spent most of his youth just trying to earn enough money to support his family. He was uncertain of his path and unsure of his choices. If he turned out OK – maybe there’s hope for the rest of us! Webster seems less like an exalted, untouchable founding father, and more like a regular guy who just happens to be a lexicographer-genius!

James Mcentire
Dec 03, 2013 James Mcentire rated it liked it
This is the first extensive reading I have done on Noah Webster. The author, in my estimation, was only moderately successful in his attempt to give a truly historical assessment of this very influential man. I think the definition of Founding Father has to be stretched to include Noah Webster in that group. Unless of course you count everyone of that generation as a Founding Father. I don't think knowing and having met some of the Founding Fathers qualifies one for being a Founding Father. He w ...more
Gabriel Fuhrman
Oct 13, 2013 Gabriel Fuhrman rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: American History Enthusiast Obsessed with the Colonial/Revolutionary time period
Recommended to Gabriel by: Mom

Noah Webster: commonly thought of as the author of Webster's Dictionary was more than your typical colonist. Joshua Kendall's drawn out Biography into the life of Noah Webster not only provides an imperviously detailed exposition into the life of the lexicographer but it also accomplishes it's goal described in the title by portraying him as a man who was "obsessed with the creation of an American culture."

Aside from the Dictionary, Kendall makes effort to show Webster's other contributions to s

May 04, 2011 Shinynickel marked it as to-read
Off this review:

This is a full biography of Webster, not just an examination of his most famous work, and in fact it's not until about two-thirds of the way through the book that we see his dictionary begin to take shape. Logophiles may skim through the earlier stages of Webster's life to get to the good stuff, but they will miss out on the foundation of Kendall's compelling argument; namely that his masterpiece would never have been completed if it weren
Powder River Rose
I've been reading this off and on for 3 weeks and it's very good in narration but the story is a bit long-winded.....that may be to reproduce the complicated nature of Noah Webster. I love words so it was a natural for me to read but it seems to go on and on with an abundance of details that may help in our understanding of the man, and is wonderful for history but can also be a bit tedious. I do think that history buffs and those interested in words would like it.
Steve Webster
May 30, 2016 Steve Webster rated it really liked it
I had an interest in learning more about a guy who I am related to because we have a common ancestor in Governor John Webster. Even if I didn't have the personal connection, I think it was interesting to see someone basically go from an obscure background into becoming a household name. He was quirky, maybe arrogant and not very likable, but sometimes those who really make a mark in the world aren't those you would choose as best friends.
Aug 11, 2011 Jb rated it it was amazing
Once before I read a biography of Noah Webster (my 14th great cousin or something like that). This one is much more thorough; it deals with his psychological compulsions, motivations and why his genius was able to help establish American identity in the republic’s early stages by means of language publications. He was only marginally financially successful at this until at age 59 a generous royalty deal for his American Spelling Book enabled him to devote full time to the task of preparing a com ...more
Apr 17, 2015 Ben rated it liked it
A decent history of a very important and infrequently addressed American historical figure... yet I wish there would have been more attention to exactly HOW Webster created his dictionary. There's a lot of detail on his other exploits and quirks, then sections about how he would get up before dawn every day and work on his dictionary. "Today I worked on R," he wrote in his journal. OK, not an exact quote, but you get the idea.
Luanne Coats
Fascinating bio of the man who taught American children how to spell, then spent over 20 years giving us The American Dictionary of the English Language.
He had many faults but perseverance was his main virtue.
I have always loved his house which is now located in my hometown of Dearborn, MI at Henry Ford's outdoor museum, Greenfield Village, having been moved there in 1938 from New Have, CT.
David McCullough spoils me for books like this. But Joshua Kendall has potential to be a pretty good writer. The first three discs went down like a calcium pill stuck in my throat. I had to stop and start over several times when I realized I had no idea what the narrator was saying.

One reason is that Noah Webster is not a character you want to like or emulate. Awkward, pompous, dry.

Everything in me screamed that I *should* like this book; it's about words, for pity's sake. Eventually I got into
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