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The man who defined a nation

Fascinating new biography about lexicographer Noah Webster

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July 26th, 2011

He was one of our most influential founding fathers and his seminal work continues to be read by generations of Americans. Noah Webster s influence on our national identity was nothing short of profound, yet most Americans know him only as the man who wrote the dictionary. A new book by Joshua Kendall, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (Putnam), shines a well-deserved light on Webster, a man whose impact was remarkably wide ranging and long lasting.

An influential man

While he did not sign theDeclaration of Independenceor craft theConstitution, Webster was well respected by many of the men who did. As Kendall says, Even though he was at least 15 years younger than most of the key Founders, he influenced them rather than the other way around. Beyond that, Webster expressed his strong support of theConstitutionin many editorials and in a widely distributed pamphlet. While his prose lacked the sophistication of the better-known Federalist Papers, Webster is nonetheless credited with convincing average citizens that theConstitutionwas an imperative step toward national unity. In his lifetime, Webster s exploits also shaped early American copyright law, book publishing, the newspaper business, education, and even public health research. A prolific writer with an exceptional ability to connect with readers, Webster s books, editorials, and pamphlets made him one of America s first national celebrities. As Kendall sees it, Webster might have made a good talking head on cable TV. He liked to make inflammatory statements.

Unique character

The Forgotten Founding Fatherpresents Webster as a unique and complex character, a man whose insight and opinions garnered tremendous respect from the likes of Benjamin Franklin but whose prickly personality and odd proclivities made him difficult to like. Kendall asserts that Webster suffered from obsessive compulsive personality disorder, a malady that was not classified as a medical condition until long after Webster s death. Webster s obsessionality gave him the focus to devote endless hours to compiling and defining words, says Kendall. And while he lived a full and vibrant life, his inflexibility stubbornness and a lack of empathy are the hallmarks of this character disorder took a toll on his wife and seven children.

The lexicographer

Webster first made his mark with his legendaryAmerican Spelling Book, the first user-friendly educational tool written specifically for American children. An instant bestseller, it taught millions of Americans the skills required of all citizens of a democracy how to read and write. The speller established Webster s reputation as a man of words and connected him to other influential men of the time, including Benjamin Franklin, who saw the speller as a cornerstone of building a unified America. In the years following the Revolutionary War, almost everything about the new nation was a debatable issue, including what official language the fledgling nation should adopt. Since Webster had become the de facto expert in language, he was at the center of the debate. Many believed that English should be abandoned, and there was talk of adopting German or Hebrew. Benjamin Franklin corresponded regularly with Webster, urging him to consider an entirely new language for the new nation. Franklin even went so far as to suggest replacing c, j, q, w, x, and y and sent drawings of his proposed replacements to Webster. Webster s most significant contribution was his seminal workThe American Dictionary. First published in 1828, it was another instant bestseller. It was also the first work of its kind to wholly embrace the distinctions of American English. As Kendall says, Webster urged Americans to think of themselves as Americans rather than as residents of a particular state or immigrants tied to their country of origin. This fierce pride in all things American was the thread that linked all of his work.

Legacy

Webster was a fervent advocate for description over prescription, arguing that dictionaries should reflect language as it is, not how it ought to be, says Kendall. Webster s view of American English was controversial from the start, but in time it has prevailed and flourished. For example, ain t became acceptable English inWebster s Third, published in 1961. In 2010,The New Oxford American Dictionarynamed refudiate, the word made popular by Sarah Palin, as word of the year. While both of these entries undoubtedly perturbed language purists, they illustrate Webster s original vision. While many see acceptance of mongrel words into the mainstream as dulling our cultural heritage, others, like Webster, believe it is a true reflection of a constantly evolving democratic society.

Beyond the book

Those interested in learning more about Noah Webster can visit the birthplace of the famed lexicographer, known as the Noah Webster House, in West Hartford, Conn. For more information, visit www.noahwebsterhouse.org or call 860-521-5362. In addition, visitors to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., can see another Noah Webster House, the one he lived in as an adult and the place where much ofThe American Dictionarywas written. To find out more, go to thehenryford.org or call 800-835-5237. michele.harris@erickson.com

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