The Forgotten Founding Father
Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture
by Joshua Kendall
Putnam’s, 368 pp., $26.95
The subtitle of this welcome biography of Noah Webster links what the author calls Webster’s “obsession” with the “creation of an American Culture.” Although Webster has been the subject of several biographies—the most substantial and comprehensive being Harlow Unger’s Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot (1998)—Joshua Kendall aims to introduce Webster to a “broad reading public” that knows him as little more than a famous name. He is convinced also that Unger, in the lines of previous writers about Webster, presents too idealized a portrait of the man. Instead, Kendall sees him, like his great predecessor Samuel Johnson, as prey to “intractable” mental distress which, in the language of modern psychiatry, Kendall calls an “obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.” According to the biographer, Webster’s “crippling interpersonal anxiety” from childhood on was essential to his composing not only the dictionary and the phenomenally popular Spelling Book, but numerous other publications on a surprising variety of subjects—enough to make him a more than plausible addition to the founders of American culture.
If one shrinks a bit from the all-too-available vocabulary of personality disorders and interpersonal anxieties, Kendall doesn’t ride these horses too hard but provides an objectively toned and sympathetically rendered account of Webster’s astonishing career. He begins with a portrait of the 27-year-old graduate of Yale who has just published Sketches of American Policy, recommendations on how the newly emerging republic should conduct itself, and who is visiting the retired General Washington at Mount Vernon. Kendall has the clever idea of heading each chapter with a definition from the dictionary Webster would eventually write: For his prologue, “George Washington’s Cultural Attaché: The Definer of American Identity,” he singles out Webster’s definition of “American.”
A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. The name American must always exalt the pride of patriotism. Washington.
When, 15 years later, after Washington’s two-term presidency and his death, Webster failed to be named official biographer of his hero, he began instead the longer but more rewarding task of what an unfriendly critic would refer to as “Noah’s Ark,” the 70,000-word American Dictionary of the English Language.
What many have failed to realize, including your reviewer, was the range and extent of Webster’s activities prior to the dictionary’s appearance in 1828. He grew up in what was known as the West Division of Hartford, Connecticut, was close to neither of his parents, studied at Yale under its future president Timothy Dwight, was friends with Joel Barlow (a member of what came to be known as the Connecticut Wits), and under Barlow’s influence hung around, in Kendall’s words, with “a fast crowd that chased women, drank and swore.” Hard to believe, but later on he abandoned a plan to make an anthology of English poets because too many of them employed undesirable language. One of these was John Dryden, about whom Webster found it “mortifying” that the poet should “regale the libidinous with his translations of Theocritus and Lucretius which I read when at college and which are vade mecums for a brothel.” Such words, uttered with typical Websterian severity, suggests why urbanity is the word that least fits him.
When war broke out with England, he, his father, and two brothers joined the Revolutionary militia; he graduated from Yale in 1778, after which his father declared he could give him no further economic support. Unmoored, Noah spent a good many hours reading Johnson’s Rambler essays while deciding to become a lawyer. For awhile he taught students at an elite Hartford school while assisting a lawyer and reading law after hours. The strain proved too much, and Webster suspended his studies in the face of what his earlier biographer, Unger, thinks was an “undefined illness . . . probably influenza.” Kendall opts for a more dramatic psychic breakdown, calling it “acute depression and anxiety,” while comparing Webster’s plight to that of Dr. Johnson, who at age 20, according to Boswell, experienced something similar. Like Johnson, Webster pulled out of the depths by committing himself to a life of writing that would lead to a great work of lexicography.