NOAH WEBSTER by John S. Morgan

NOAH WEBSTER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The accomplishments of American lexicographer and educator Noah Webster are impressive. His grammar books and famous speller were staples and best sellers in American schools and homes by the middle of the 19th century; he was largely responsible for instituting copyright laws in the early days of the Republic; he edited, lectured on, and wrote about a multitude of subjects including Federalist politics. And, of course, there was the landmark American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828. But those qualities which oddly enough fueled his massive projects--Webster's obsessive self-righteousness, his dogged determination to set things right in a naughty world, and his superpatriotism--also produced a personality which may remind you of those lines by W. S. Gilbert: ""And everybody thinks I'm such a disagreeable man/ And I can't think why!"" There were those who could think why: a contemporary young lady's diary states ""he is even duller (in conversation) than in writing"" and Jefferson (disliked by both Webster and his present biographer) saw Webster as ""a mere pedagogue of very limited understanding and very strong prejudices."" The author stiff-gaits through Noah Webster's early years and then details the chronologies of major and minor oeuvre with meager illustrations of Webster's unique contributions: innovative incorporations of American usage (""honor"" instead of ""honour""; ""plow"" instead of ""plough,"" etc.); experiments in phonetic spelling; etymological analyses and definitions, etc. Some of Morgan's commentary is couched in numbered ""outline"" form and resembles notes from a junior high blackboard: ""Webster piled up an impressive list of firsts: 1. First to prepare a system of education. 2. First to give rules of versification for children."" (No example given.) A plodding biography which dulls the achievements of this unpleasant but genuinely gifted man.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1975
Publisher: Mason/Charter