From innovative, Bancroft Prize–winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, 1998), a group portrait of seven 19th-century Americans whose efforts in the development of language paralleled and contributed to the growth of our national identity.
Lepore (History/Boston Univ.) relates here the stories of Noah Webster, who sought to standardize American spelling; William Thornton, designer of an international alphabet; Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah, inventor of a written language meant to help his tribesmen avoid assimilation; Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who brought the French idea of sign language for the deaf to the New World; the Mississippi cotton plantation slave Abd al-Rahman, who used his knowledge of Arabic to prove his royal heritage and win his freedom and repatriation to Africa; the frustrated artist Samuel Morse, creator of a telegraph language he believed might promote peace and human understanding; and Alexander Graham Bell, whose efforts to teach the deaf to speak led to his development of the telephone. The seven mini-biographies weave in and around and give new shading to many recognizable aspects of US history: the development of the Constitution and emerging ideas of nationhood, the “back to Africa” movement of the 1820s, the laying of the Atlantic cable in 1858, the advent of an era of American technological enthusiasm in the 1870s. The author’s thesis—that her protagonists’ strong ideas about language and communication are integral to the nation-building that occupied 19th-century America—seems indisputable, although she herself concedes that grouping these particular stories together is something of a contrivance. Indeed, at times Lepore seems to struggle with sustaining a coherent booklength narrative, but she nonetheless elucidates important back-currents of America’s cultural history with splendid erudition.
A thematically linked series of insightful essays that will delight students of cultural Americana and fans of the history of language.