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Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture

by Joshua Kendall

Pub Date: April 14th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15699-1
Publisher: Putnam

Freelance journalist Kendall (The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus, 2008) tells the story of the remarkable Noah Webster (1758–1843)—lexicographer, political theorist, journalist, co-founder of Amherst College, polymath.

The author notes that many Americans confuse Webster with his more famous distant cousin Daniel. But Kendall’s biography may change that. Born on a farm in Hartford, Conn., Webster attended school only a few months a year but entered Yale in 1774, where he befriended poet Joel Barlow (with whom he fell out, over religion, many decades later). Webster became the friend and acquaintance of many of the luminaries of the American Revolution, George Washington among them, but he struggled to find a career. He tried teaching and the law, struggling in both. However, he wrote fiery pamphlets and newspaper essays and then published his famous spelling book that, off and on, enriched him, frustrated him and propelled him into celebrity. It also occasioned the genesis of the spelling bee. Kendall argues that Webster invented the author tour, a contention that is hard to deny—he traveled all over the country promoting his writing, making deals, pressing flesh, smiling and schmoozing. He was also an early abolitionist. He first found career stability in journalism, editing the Federalist newspaper American Minerva. Just before the turn of the century, he found another love: lexicography. Kendall writes that Webster had a most orderly mind, which sought to categorize and record everything. Though his was not the first American dictionary, it was by far the most thorough and influential. The American Dictionary appeared in 1828, was a quick success and lives on as Merriam-Webster’s (the Merriam family joined the enterprise in 1843).

A gracefully told story that commands attention and confers on Webster deserved honor too long deferred.