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, Webster was of the ideal temperament to organize the first uniquely American dictionary — and America, argues Kendall, is all the better for it.
Even before his famous dictionary, Webster’s obsession with words rocketed him to national fame, while only his mid-20s, with his hugely successful American Spelling Book. Webster marketed his work masterfully, figuring out how to secure laudatory blurbs from all the right people, offering bulk discounts and promoting shamelessly by booking speaking engagements for himself in which he openly bad-mouthed the competition. Calling for a “uniformity and purity of language — to add superiority to this infant empire and to human nature,” Webster’s speller was, as Kendall artfully describes it, “a linguistic declaration of independence.” American English — though it took some time before Webster would call it that — would become Webster’s lifelong obsession.
To Webster, language mattered. It was as closely aligned with a nation’s sense of identity as the country’s chosen form of government or the foods its citizens ate (indeed, Webster would privately sneer at the overtly European cuisine Andrew Jackson served during Webster’s visit to the White House). It’s almost quaint to read how angry our forebears could get arguing over spelling and grammar. Is “boating” a word? What about that pesky extra “u” in words like “honour” and “labour”? Did profanity have a place in the dictionary? These were serious matters for serious debate, and Webster was never one to turn from a fight, though the term “respectfully disagree” seems as foreign to Webster as the food in Jackson’s White House. Webster can’t just disagree with opponents, he has to disparage them as well, spraying even the much-admired Samuel Johnson in his crossfire as he defends his own contributions to lexicography— a tactic that ruffled even Webster’s supporters.
Still, it’s tough to grumble about him too much, for Webster, for the most part, picked the right fights. He demanded American English for and by Americans. And he appreciated early on that the American language needed to be inherently flexible, allowing for new words to be added as the language required — “without a license from Englishmen,” he stressed. To this day, in fact, it still makes national news when new words like “blogosphere” or “chick flick” are formally incorporated into the dictionary. (Oddly, despite this aggressive stance, Webster himself would create only one new word, “demoralizing,” which, given his temperament, seems like just the kind of word he would coin.)
I still don’t like Noah Webster, but in Kendall’s hands, Webster’s faults, obsessions and abrasive personality become part of his strangely compelling charm. Kendall is deft at pointing out the little details that the perpetually obsessive Webster couldn’t help but incorporate into his endless lists — an attention to details that makes Webster eye-rollingly endearing. When compiling a list of the number and causes of death in London in April 1788, for instance, the very thorough Webster deems it necessary to inform readers that the number of deaths attributed to “Bit by mad dog” is exactly zero.
Later, when Webster, who fancied himself an expert in etymology, begins making sweeping and ultimately incorrect statements on the origins of words, we can’t help but admire his colossal nerve. When talent isn’t enough, Webster always gets by on sheer perseverance alone. Founding Father or not, what can be more quintessentially American than that? (less)
While Miracle at Philadelphia will probably always remain the so-called "definitive" book about the convention, th...moreInformative and just plain good fun.
While Miracle at Philadelphia will probably always remain the so-called "definitive" book about the convention, this one is a much more entertaining read. Stewart proceeds chronologically through the convention, yet organizes each chapter around a key theme, issue, or debate. You'll spend one chapter watching the South try to work its will over the horrid 3/5s clause, another listening to grumbling about the election of the President, and another mediating the wrangling over small state rights. Rather than read speeches or pore over the finer points of debate, you'll instead be treated to something of a historical suspense novel -- will they reach an agreement? Will the crafty Luther Martin bog down proceedings? Will John Rutledge work his will? And will George Washington ever say anything?
Stewart also brings to life some of the unsung, and previously unknown, heroes of the Consitution, not only inside the Philadelphia State House, but beyond. You'll read about the "Ipswich Miracle" -- the story of (perhaps) America's first truly successful lobbyist -- that mirrored the debates on slavery in Philadelphia so closely that some suspected a conspiracy. You'll get to know David Brearley, the still largely unknown delegate from new Jersey who solved the problems of the presidency, and the quiet Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts who, technically, presided over much of the session -- as it sat as "Committee of the Whole" -- while the even more silent George Washington sat with the Virginia delegation.
Jefferson once called those at the convention an "assembly of demigods." But in Stewart's hands, they become something more compelling: human beings. They bicker, they politick, they call each other names, they rush through work when they want to go home, and -- just as politicians do today -- they posture and swagger, even behind closed doors. But they could also listen, compromise, see the greater good, argue persuasively, and write beautifully -- and those qualities, ultimately, are what make the Constitution such a wonderful human -- and, in this case, uniquely American -- invention.
Sure, it's an easy choice -- the Citizen Kane of biographies, universally admired, and perpetually in print. But it deserves every word of praise that...moreSure, it's an easy choice -- the Citizen Kane of biographies, universally admired, and perpetually in print. But it deserves every word of praise that's been written about it. And if you say you didn't enjoy it, you're just trying to buck the trend, mister.
McCullough originally set out to write a book about the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but worried (he said later) that Adams might get lost in Jefferson's shadow. But the more research he did, the more he began to wonder whether Jefferson could truly stand up to Adams -- and changed the focus of the book to turn the spotlight solely on the second president.
It was a shrewd decision, and the right one. John Adams -- heck, all of McCullough's work -- is not only a great piece of storytelling, it's a user's manual for How To Do Biography Right.
Think the legislative process sounds boring? Think again. Using the crafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to frame the story of Johnson...moreThink the legislative process sounds boring? Think again. Using the crafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to frame the story of Johnson's Senate years -- during which he practically invented modern Senate procedure -- Caro makes lawmaking look downright dramatic. Which it is, especially when the stakes are so high.
Johnson doesn't come across as a hero in the practical sense -- he's a boor, unfaithful to his wife, an opportunist, and, at times, doesn't appear to have any real core beliefs. Whether it's speaking to Southern senators with a deep drawl before turning around and talking to New England progressives without a hint of an accent, or kissing the appropriate backsides to secure plum committee assignments and roles in the Senate leadership, Johnson appears to bend his own personality -- as well as the personalities of others -- to fit his own purposes. But whether you like him or not, he understood politics, and process, like no one else before him (and perhaps better than any since). And once he became committed to a cause, he was a dangerous man to cross; no one could kick your teeth in quicker using parliamentary procedure than Lyndon Johnson. You'll genuinely cheer when he finally steers the Civil Rights Act to final passage.
Caro ends the book with a cliffhanger, as Johnson angles toward the Vice Presidency -- and Caro's next book will take things from there. Don't rush things, Caro, but really, hurry up, won't you?
(Review reprinted from my website at brianjayjones.blogspot.com)(less)