Noah Webster: Forgotten Founding Father

Joshua Kendall seeks to revive the “incredible shrinking reputation” of the creator of the American dictionary.

Noah Webster Jr
Noah Webster Jr., a "born definer of words."

Noah Webster Jr. gave us American English. Yet his star has fallen so far since his death in 1843 that countless Americans think Daniel Webster wrote the dictionary. In the new biography “The Forgotten Founding Father” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), Joshua Kendall attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Noah Webster by highlighting his far-reaching achievements, which included serving as a state representative for both Connecticut and Massachusetts. “In his lifetime he was best-known for the ‘American Spelling Book’ [1873], which sold a hundred million copies over the course of the next century and taught five generations of Americans how to read,” notes Kendall. The dictionary came later, only after he “retired” to focus on the project that promised him literary immortality.

Yet the fame Webster enjoyed during his life hasn’t endured, thanks in part to his disagreeable personality, which alienated him from historians that could have helped preserve his reputation. This isn’t to say that Kendall shies away from addressing Webster’s personal shortcomings, or his professional failures. (Webster failed the bar exam on his first try, and never found success as a lawyer, for example.) In contrast to preceding biographers, Kendall provides a well-rounded portrait of his subject, who he discusses at length in the following Failure Interview.

How does your biography differ from earlier efforts?
There have been about a half-dozen Webster biographies. But mine is the first since 1880 that was not produced under the watchful eye of the family. I had access to a lot of documents that other people hadn’t seen, or that other people saw only through the family. So I felt I could paint a more complex picture of Webster and capture his foibles and quirks as well as his strengths and contributions. Given that he kept a lively diary, I was excited by the chance to get inside his head and show what made him tick.

Were there any surprises during the course of your research?
Before beginning I assumed that Webster was a word nerd who for decades sequestered himself in his study to labor over the dictionary. I was surprised to discover that his magnum opus—“The American Dictionary”—constituted the last act of a long career dedicated to both words and public service.

His early achievements included cranking out pamphlets in support of the Constitution. In 1785, he published “Sketches of American Policy,” which argued for a stronger central government. In the 1790s he was editor of New York City’s first daily newspaper, American Minerva, and took positions on every major policy issue of the day. While living in Manhattan, he worked on a series of books on “the yellow fever.” Thus, he helped give birth to modern public health research. He also championed both female education and public schools, and helped found Amherst College.

I want readers to understand that he was helpful in building the nation politically as well as linguistically. He was a national celebrity who shaped many aspects of American culture, ranging from education, science and journalism, to language and the very nature of our political institutions.

So why is he “the forgotten founding father”?
He’s forgotten because people think Daniel Webster [an eloquent senator in the mid-19th century] wrote the dictionary. Daniel was a much more heroic figure and historians warmed up to him more. Noah’s reputation really started to dwindle when his “American Spelling Book” went out of print around 1900.

Why was the “American Spelling Book” such a popular book for so long?
Webster was a school teacher—that was the only job he could get after he finished Yale—and had a remarkable knack for connecting with readers. His speller was user-friendly; it communicated the nuts and bolts of English in a manner that children could easily understand.

Did he reap the financial rewards of what we might refer to as a mega-bestseller?
The “American Spelling Book” made money but the contracts were never very good. Based on sales he should have been oozing with cash, but he never made the absolute killing he should have. In 1816 he landed America’s first blockbuster book deal, which promised him $42,000 over a 14-year period. He could have made even more, but because he had retired to devote himself full-time to the dictionary, he was dependent on the income from the “American Spelling Book” and didn’t strike hard bargains with his publishers. A year after signing that hefty contract, he caved and asked for the money up front, settling for a total of $23,000.

How long did it take Webster to complete his dictionary?
He retired in 1798 and started it soon after settling in to the New Haven [Connecticut] mansion formerly owned by Benedict Arnold, which he got a good deal on due to the stigma associated with living there. In 1806 Webster published his “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language,” which was a warm-up exercise for the unabridged dictionary of 1828. I joke in the book that writing a dictionary by oneself—as Webster repeatedly found out—always takes longer than expected.

How is the modern dictionary different from Webster’s original?
None of the dictionaries that Webster worked on in his lifetime—even the unabridged edition of 1841, which he funded by mortgaging his home at the age of eighty—look like a modern-day dictionary. The English dictionary as we know it was born with the 1864 edition of “Webster’s.” Widely hailed as a masterpiece in its day, that version of “The American Dictionary” provided the template for everything that followed in both America and Britain, including the “Oxford English Dictionary”—the first great modern English dictionary.

The first major revision of “Webster’s” fixed the one major gaffe in Webster’s otherwise exemplary oeuvre. That is, Webster’s etymologies were never more than wild guesswork. While philology was still in its infancy during his lifetime, Webster’s self-absorption and stubbornness led him to ignore the important discoveries that had been made by German scholars during the nineteenth century.

Did he experience any other notable professional failures?
He wrote a translation of the Bible, which didn’t go over very well. People said they wanted the word of God, not the word of Webster. He also wanted to write an expurgated anthology of English poetry, which he never completed.

I understand he also made a pitch to be George Washington’s first biographer.
He would have been a terrible biographer because he really had no sense of what other people were like. He couldn’t even get inside his own head, much less somebody else’s.

What role did Webster’s obsessive-compulsive personality play in his success?
I argue that it was instrumental to his success. He was quirky and a little unstable but he chose the right outlet for his particular temperament. Another way of putting it is that for most of us the task of writing a dictionary would drive us crazy. It may well have prevented him from going crazy.

How would a modern psychiatrist characterize Webster?
A modern-day psychologist might be inclined to diagnose him with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). While this condition is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it’s not the same thing. Unlike those with OCD, who often become incapacitated by their anxiety, people with OCPD typically function “better than well.” Webster’s obsessionality gave him the focus to devote endless hours to compiling and defining words. And while he lived a full and vibrant life, his inflexibility took a toll on his wife and seven children. As therapists know all too well, domineering obsessionals often drive other family members to seek psychiatric treatment.

Is there a single word that best sums up Webster?
Persistent. He worked on his dictionary for thirty years. That’s one of the things I really admire about him. He just kept at it and kept at it, and for writing a dictionary that’s a critical attribute. And in America, as opposed to Europe, dictionary making has always been an entrepreneurial affair—a business. It really needed someone like Webster, who was business-savvy. If it hadn’t been for Webster the dictionary might have been delayed another generation or so.

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