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? ...more