Like Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (2003)-an account of the volcanic eruption of 1883 and its geological, political, artistic and religious reverberations in the present day-Simon Winchesters earlier success The Professor and the Madman (1999) might be described as a book on subterranean forces. Even though the human scale and its tale of small individual endeavours is dwarfed by seismic shifts, rifts and the greatest explosion in recorded human history, there is perhaps something more compelling about the smaller intimacies of this earlier story.
Set in the late 1900s, The Professor and the Madman, according to the blurb, is a literary history on the false starts, interruptions and some seventy years it took to make the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Yet it might more accurately be described as an interweaving of biographies and fantasies. For it is a revelation of the lives of James Murry, general editor of the OED, Dr. W.C. Minor, one of its major contributors, and words themselves.
Born in 1837, Murry was a poor, self-educated Scot and a member of the Congregationalist Church. As a child he seems to have been a kind of Hardyesque Jude figure. He was a voracious learner, taking an interest in maps, archaeology and astronomy. But it was his appetite for language that led him out of teaching and into his role as the general editor of the big dictionary, at Oxford. It was there he set up his Scriptorium and with military efficiency and a sense of monkish asceticism set about the task. From there, Murry enlisted the help of thousands of volunteers and one of the most prolific and exacting contributors was William Chester Minor.
Like Murry, Minor was from a pious Congregationalist background. But his upbringing was altogether more exotic. Born on the tropical island of Ceylon, in 1834, the Minors were first-line American aristocracy. When he was thirteen William was sent back to the United States to be given a formal education, before beginning his studies at Yale Medical School in 1861. Shortly after graduation he joined The Union Army, just four days before the Battle of Gettysburg. Confronted with horrific injuries, and though a gifted surgeon, the medicine he practised could only fumble in the wounds of casualities. And it must have gone against the very core of his being when, at one point, he was ordered to punish an Irish deserter by branding his face with the letter D.
Exposure to such brutality seems to have irrevocably disturbed Minor, leading to his discharge from the army and eventual hospitalisation. As one of the walking wounded he travelled to England to try to recover his former self, like a kind of latter-day Hamlet. He took lodgings in the Lambeth part of Dickensian London and it was there he shot and killed George Merrett (to whom Winchester dedicates his book) believing him to be a Fenian who was planning to kill him. Convicted of murder, Minor was treated sympathetically and sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Crowthorne. He brought with him all his books, easel, paints and flute and it was there, in his prison cell, that he began to contribute to the dictionary. And the first word he researched was Art.
Words are, of course, the other protagonists. As Winchester rightly suggests, a dictionary should give the life story of each word; it shouldoffer its biography and record the register of its birth. To think of words as having a biography gives them a life and slipperiness that the authoritative language of etymology and lexicography seems to conceal. And one delightful aspect of this book is the way words, such as murder, polymath, sesquipedalian and diagnosis are defined at the beginning of each chapter, telling us something about its theme and the progression of the story. There are wonderful asides as well, such as Samuel Johnsons charmingly eccentric and redundant definition of an elephant as being The largest of all quadrupeds who is equipped with a trunk, which, in turn, indicate why a dictionary was needed to modernise, simplify and standardise words, their spelling and their meaning. This was a mammoth task. And through the thousands of entries that Minor sent Murry they came to know one another. Before their first meeting, Murry had imagined that Minor was a medical man of literary tastes who had retired to the country to pursue his interest in books and language. He was astonished to learn of the Americans circumstances, yet nonetheless sympathetic and he continued to visit him over twenty years.
Like biography, fantasies are as much about what has been said as what has been left out. And Winchesters tale is, in part, about the fantasies of an age and of an individual. There is the Victorian fantasy that a dictionary could fix the language, that it was a monumental work of complete authority and not an endless effort that attempts to keep apace with the evolution of words and their meanings. And then there are Minors perverse sexual imaginings and paranoid fear of the Irish. It is instructive, at this point, to refer to a moment in W. B Yeatss Autobiographies, when he remembers his own childish and dreamy wish to die fighting the Fenians. This is not to suggest that Yeats should be our picture of mental health, but the shape the Irish poet put upon his own fantasies serves to highlight how Minor was governed by the limited repertoire of his own imaginings. In other words, Yeats was free to invent in a way that Minor was not.
Winchesters accounts of Minors misery are clearly sympathetic. His madness is not glamorised, as so many accounts of madness are. And this book, in effect, gives us a case-history, charting Minors first sexual lustings as a young boy in Ceylon, his later fear that he would be murdered by Fenians, to his belief that he was being molested in his cell by men, and ultimately to his act of self-mutilation when he cut off his penis. Although the progress of the dictionary and Minors insanity makes for a compelling read, at times, Winchesters style can be portentous. For instance, the first chapter, The Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh, it might be said, owes less to the Dickensian prose that opens Great Expectations and perhaps more to what the Victorians called penny dreadfuls. He is perhaps too defensive about the OED project itself and should have been more inclusive, outlining the arguments of those academics that see the work as sexist, racist, fussy and imperial. For these shortcomings do not necessarily diminish the dictionary, but instead are reminders to each generation of the organic nature of such work-that it continually needs updating, that it is not monumental but fluid. There are some omissions. For instance, Minors barrister may have been Edward Clarke, who defended Oscar Wilde, which seems to be a coincidence full of possibility. Also, Winchester hints at, when he really should have engaged with, the homo-erotic qualities of Minors fantasies. And I would have liked Winchester to develop further his claim that doing all those dictionary slips was [Minors] medication; in a way they became his therapy and to explore what it might have meant for him to be researching the biography of words rather than rehearsing his own fantasies. Yet, despite such criticism, the most engaging moments in The Professor and the Madman occur when Winchester moves beyond a well represented account and gets caught up in the momentum and risk of oversight, speculation and inventiveness.
Michael Kinsella (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
"a fascinating, spicy, learned tale" -- -- Richard Bernstein, New York Times
"elegant and scrupulous" -- --David Walton, New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Simon Winchester was a geologist at Oxford and worked in Africa and on offshore oil rigs before becoming a full-time globe-trotting foreign correspondent and writer. He currently lives on a small farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, an apartment in New York's West Village and in the Western Isles of Scotland.