Joshua Kendall on Noah Webster

  • January 10, 2012

Charles Shields' second in a series of articles featuring interviews with biographers and historians who will be appearing as part of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, January through April.

This is the second in a series of articles featuring interviews with biographers and historians who will be appearing as part of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, January through April.

Noah Webster was as prickly and hard as a horse chestnut. The 18th-century compiler of the first American spelling book and dictionary was opinionated, quick to anger, self-righteous, and drove himself to exhaustion. Friends and family learned that nothing mattered to him except the work: codifying American speech with as much rigor and self-imposed taste as Martha Stewart, in our own day, has tried to influence our home lives. Webster’s watchword was order, even to the point of his counting the number of buildings in New England towns and publishing the figures, and keeping annual mortality lists as in plague times. He was a one-man Doomsday Book author of the new United States.

And yet he was politically far-sighted, a champion of the American experiment — intemperately so, offending many important people, even presidents, with his firebrand editorials, written in the spirit of Thomas Paine, even though post-colonial politicians, as a species, fell far short of his almost impossible expectations. Noah Webster: the logophile Cotton Mather.

In The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of American Culture, author Joshua Kendall introduces us to the man who leveraged language for all it was worth in forging a nation.

Webster’s labors as a fact-compiler, political campaigner, journalist, and lexicographer are astonishing! You explain that he was never introspective and his self-imposed demands distracted him from his nervousness and existential problems. Can you tell us more about the kinds of dark areas in himself and outside in the world he didn’t care to think about?

The self-absorbed scholar had no idea how his actions affected other people. In 1808, Webster wrote to his college friend of thirty years, Joel Barlow, a well-known poet, that he wanted to break off the friendship because he considered his most recent poem heretical. Two years later, when Barlow was appointed Ambassador to France, Webster wrote again, asking for a favor, pretending as if nothing had ever come between them.

You seem to enjoy tracking down relationships, and doing genealogy, too. Do you share Webster’s fascination with facts and detail?

While I like to hunt down facts for my biographies, I’m not an obsessive. Putting something massive — say, the American language — in perfect order never had much of an appeal for me. But as I like to say, I’m obsessed with the obsessed. I do like to know everything about them.

Webster’s classmates, friends, associates and enemies reminded me of Van Wyck Brooks’ almost-forgotten The Flowering of New England: so many famous (and notorious) contemporaries in one corner of the country. Do you have any theories about why New England gave rise to so many great men and women?

Particularly in the 18th century, New England was the center of commerce and education; it was thus fertile ground for the emergence of great minds. For most of that century, the country had fewer than ten colleges; only one — William and Mary — was in the South and the majority were in New England. And if we are to believe Webster, the South’s educational standards fell way short of those in his native New England. After giving a lecture in Williamsburg during the book tour for his speller in 1785, he recorded in his diary, “[T]he Virginians have little money and great pride, contempt of Northern men & great fondness for dissipated life. They do not understand grammar.”

Webster was abstemious and severe in his personal habits: eating little, dressing very conservatively. If he saw a boy dawdling, he instructed him to start picking up stones in the road. Do you think Webster’s puritanical values were the seeds of his religious conversion to strict Calvinism?

I think Webster’s religious conversion can be traced back to his mid-life crisis. In his 40s, this chronically anxious man who had trouble relating to anyone was overwhelmed by the task of raising seven children. Religion helped him organize his emotional life — particularly, his anxiety. As he later observed, “From that time, I have had perfect tranquility of mind.” Moreover, Webster was a bundle of contradictions. During his Yale days in the 1770s, he drank, swore and chased girls. But after his religious conversion, he changed his tune and was eager to publish an expurgated anthology of English poetry, which would take out all the smutty passages. Thus, some of his puritanical values emerged only after his conversion.

With his family, he was something of an Old Testament patriarch: everything about their lives had to bend to his will, his writing projects. I was surprised that his children loved such a martinet.

In those days though, children, rarely spoke ill of their parents. I think they did their best to find a way to love him. And the more crotchety he became, the more eager his six daughters and one son were to please him. When his daughter Emily was a teenager, she wrote to him, apologizing for being “an ignoramus.”

Newspaper editors in the 18th century were not shy about expressing their opinions and vilifying their enemies. They particularly loved scandal. Alexander Hamilton started the New York Evening Post, which became Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Are today’s tabloids written in the spirit of American newspapers long ago?

21st century American journalism is indeed a return to the 18th, but the common element isn’t so much tabloid journalism per se. As the editor of New York City’s first daily, American Minerva, Webster resembled a contemporary blogger. He wrote the entire four-pager himself, and the content consisted mostly of stories that had already appeared in other papers and opinion pieces. There was very little shoe-leather reporting.

You write: “In the late 18th century, authors— not publishers — typically arranged for the financing, printing and distribution of books …” It’s become a cliché that e-books are a revolution in publishing. But your description of 18th century authorship makes me think that may be an exaggeration. What’s your opinion?

Webster, whose speller was the first runaway bestseller in American history, helped build the infrastructure of the modern publishing industry, which lasted for about two centuries and is now being dismantled by the e-book. In the early 19th century, he signed the first blockbuster book deal; he got a solid five-figure advance and his publisher agreed to do the marketing and distribution. With self-published e-books, we are now going back to the pre-Webster era in which the onus for nearly everything is on the author.

At times, Webster comes off as a bit of crackpot. His theory that there was an ur-language before the Tower of Babel called Chaldee rendered his Synopsis of Words in Twenty Languages absolutely useless. I was reminded of the mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind who saw patterns everywhere. Any similarity, do you think?

Yes, Webster’s unpublished tome on etymology was delusional, but Webster wasn’t. He had just a touch of madness. But the history of lexicography is filled with the seriously mentally ill — people like Nash (who came down with schizophrenia in his 20s). One of those “crazy lexicographers” was James Gates Percival, a Yale-educated doctor who helped Webster on his dictionary. Unlike Webster, this alienated loner couldn’t go near a woman and tried to commit suicide on a couple of occasions. But paradoxically, Percival knew that the etymological ideas of his boss were batty. (In response, Webster fired him). Another famous “crazy lexicographer,” was WC Minor, another Yale-educated doc who later worked on both Webster’s and The Oxford English Dictionary. Simon Winchester’s bestseller, The Professor and the Madman tells the story of Minor’s relationship with James Murray, the first OED editor.

The subtitle of your biography is “Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of American Culture.” What kind of America would have been ideal in Webster’s imagination?

This obsessive would obviously have liked a more orderly America. He liked cities like New Haven and Philadelphia that were mapped out on a grid. The sprawl of cities in south and west might have alarmed him. He also would want us to engage in a much higher level of public discourse. When he started his NYC newspaper, Webster stressed how the fate of our democracy depended upon an informed citizenry. “The foundation of all free governments,” he wrote in its first issue in 1793, “seems to be, a general diffusion of knowledge.”

Charles J. Shields is the author of the just-released And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. He is the associate director of the Chappelle Great Lives Lectures Series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in which Joshua Kendall will be participating February 2.

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