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The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture Paperback – Mar 6 2012
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About the Author
Joshua Kendall is a language enthusiast and an award-winning freelance journalist whose work has appeared in such publications as The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and Psychology Today. He lives in Boston.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"revolutionary, reactionary, fighter, peacemaker, intellectual, commonsense philosopher, ladies' man, prig, slick networker and loner". (page 8) In addition, he was an American patriot, and a businesman whose dictionary served to unite the American nation. Having graduated from Yale, he became a confidant of the Founding Fathers, among them George Washington and Ben Franklin. He started New York's city first newspaper and, among his many public activities, he also took up the cause of slavery. Despite his abhorrence of it, he feared total abolition of it, which would wreak havoc on the American society.
The best part of the book is the third one, which is about the writing of his famous dictionary. At the same time, Webster was monitoring and writing also about the weather "with a mathematical precision". In contrast to Samuel Johnson, Webster crusaded in favour of etymology and made famous spelling changes in orthography. He wrote standing up and paced back and forth as he consulted a particular volume, because sitting at a desk was an "indolent habit"(page 259).
When finished, the dictionary contained seventy thousand words. Webster was also a great pedagogue who championed both female education and public schools, and he served numerous terms in the stated legislatures of both Connecticut and Massachusetts,w here he worked assiduously in order to promote workers' compensation and unemployment insurance. He drafted the first copyright laws.
He had enjoyed tilling the soil and in a short article, called "The Farmer's Catechism," he considered farming the most necessary, the most healthy, the most innocent, and the most agreeable employment for men.
After having married, he fathered seven children and also helped found Amherst College. But all his life he was a loner, perhaps due to some kind of mental illness which made it hard on him to connect with others. His last decade was full of personal tragedies.
Read this book and you will get to know a multi-layered great American intellectual who is still influencing the world of English and American culture and civilization-al of this written by a a very gifted author who finally illuminated Webster and gave him a place in the pantheon of American giants.
A Connecticut "yankee" in the truest sense, much of the first part of Kendall's book describes life in Connecticut around the time of the American Revolution and the years that follow. For me, having grown up in the "Nutmeg State", it's wonderful to see so many names associated with Webster that became towns that dot our landscape today...Griswold, Seymour and Wolcott to name just three. The author tries to get into the mind and personality of Noah Webster and he largely succeeds. Webster was self-absorbed, cranky and thin-skinned but he also had a propensity of doing weird things...like counting the number of houses in towns through which he passed. His organized mind on this task alone gives the reader insight into how Webster became obsessed with putting together his dictionary...a project that took twenty years to complete.
Much of the fun in reading Kendall's book occurs in the chapters in which Webster is given to answering his critics through pen names in different periodicals. Often taking a Roman name here and there, Webster could be biting in his response to criticism. We learn he was a Federalist of the highest order...loathing "Democrats" like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, while giving earnest support to his presumed hero, George Washington, and that becoming "born again" in mid-life changed his life forever. And his family gave new meaning to "dysfunction". Yet, it was in the words themselves..their spellings, definitions, (Kendall begins each chapter with an apt description of what will follow) usage, derivations and sometimes even pronunciations that make "The Forgotten Founding Father" such a joy to read. I highly recommend this absorbing book for its depth, color and moving narrative.
Noah Webster was born in 1758 in Connecticut of a prestigious Puritan Yankee lineage. Although he tried variously to be a lawyer, a school teacher, and a newspaperman with various degrees of success, his talents always led him to write. Not stories or anything creative; instead Webster was drawn to *compile* information. He gained early fame with The American Spelling Book in 1783 (actually not named such until 1787) which helped many young people with its innovative approach to spelling. But his more lasting fame didn't come until 1828 when he published the first American dictionary (which was also the last time a dictionary was compiled primarily by a single person).
Joshua Kendall writes of of the brilliant but frequently self-centered and cantankerous man who's life's passions were consumed by books and words. The name Webster might be remembered but the dictionary is more often mistakenly credited to his better-remembered cousin Daniel Webster. But part of Webster's inspiration to create a dictionary came from his conviction that America needed to be separate and individual from Great Britain. Americans didn't always use the same words as their English-speaking relatives across the water, nor did they speak the same way. He felt it was important to establish and foster a culture that was uniquely American - and then to *define* that culture through its language.
Kendall has written an insightful and interesting biography about this "forgotten founding father." Webster isn't the kind of personality that invites warmth and reverence, but Kendall brings him to life in a way that is anything but `dry as a dictionary.' Each chapter begins with a word and definition that sets the tone. He explains that Webster probably suffered from a mental illness or "personality disorder," although he never explains what it was (maybe some form of autism?) except that it drove him to compile statistics and facts and definitions. It also made him a frequently prickly person to be around - especially for those with different political views. But it also makes him an interesting biographical subject behind those heavy red books that have been so familiar to many generations.
As to the subject, I am not at all certain I would conclude that Webster was as priggish and perhaps obnoxious as the author implies. It may be he thought a lot of himself and could be pushy, but, how would he have accomplished what he did without great drive and self-confidence. Also, it may be that some thought him boorish, but we should read with cynicism the negative assessments of contemporaries which might be rife with envy or competitive urges. No ignoble behavior is attributed to him that I can see given the times (it was, for example, common to deplore slavery, but feel that the North had no say in the matter). And though he was certainly opinionated, that is not a character flaw in my book. He clearly listened to the opinions of others, but not slavishly, despite the reputations of even a Washington or Franklin. Nor did he appear to me to engage in any of the salacious character assassination in which both Hamilton and Jefferson engaged. Perhaps his etymological work was laughable, but lots of etymological work lacks rigor, particularly at that time when it was a very new field. He's hardly the only one who based his incorrect etymology on words that seemed vaguely similar. I read a little etymology, linguistics and philology and am often less than persuaded, despite the modern scientific trappings. The speed at which Webster worked on his etymology probably precluded great scholarship. With respect to dealings with his family, I think perhaps the author has placed upon Webster some modern 21st century politically correct sentiments, as it does not appear that Webster was other than beloved and respected by his family or that his patriarchal behavior was outside of the norm for the time (or even later times - I know fathers like him right now). He certainly sacrificed and worked incessantly for them, especially for his son, upon whom much expectation of success would be placed.
As to his main work - the speller and especially the dictionary, these were enormous contributions to our culture for which he rightly deserves fame. I knew the name Webster as a little boy. I cannot think of a founder outside of the pantheon (Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison) who are still as well known to the public. Possibly he is better known in some ways than Hamilton and Madison, even if few know his story. I now know it better and am grateful to the author for his efforts.