Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America.....biography by Harry Warfel (publisher Macmillan)

Book review from Time Magazine, April 27, 1936 (p.83)



Though Webster and Dictionary are synonymous in the U.S., Noah Webster's posthumous fame is cloudy. He is often confused with Daniel Webster (no kin) and his multitudinous activities have faded from popular memory. Last week, in a full length biography of Noah Webster, the first in 50 years, author Warfel dusted the cobwebs off this early Yankee, showed him as a genuine and valuable antique.

A prime example of his period and place, Noah Webster (1758-1843) was a school teacher who by zeal and persistence became a Citizen Fixit to the whole U.S.  Because he insisted on busting out of his own bailiwick to mend his neighbors manners, he was not popular: but before he died the U.S. was proud of him. Even more than his dictionary his famed blue-backed Speller (which sold nearly 100 million copies before it went out of use) knit U.S. dialects together into one more or less standard tongue, poured a patriotic iron tonic into the stomach of the adolescent nation.

Connecticut born and bred, Noah Webster was the son of a sturdy farmer, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars, who mortgaged his farm in order to send his promising son to college at Yale. The Revolution did not interrupt Noah's education: what soldiering he did was a holiday task. One summer he marched with his father and two brothers to Ticonderoga to help repel Burgoyne's invasion, was too late to see any fighting. After his graduation his father gave him an eight dollar Continental bill (worth about two in silver) and sent him out to make his own way.  He taught school, studied law, sashayed into Hartford society -- where his Yankee angularity drew down pert feminine comments: "His reflections are as prosey as those of a horse....In conversation he is even duller than in writing, if that is possible."  

But Noah Webster, jun., esq. (as he signed himself, to the ribald delight of his lighter-minded contemporaries) was too ambitious to be tripped by ridicule. In an era of vacillating reconstruction after the revolution he saw his didactic chance, made it his patriotic duty. He launched his first speller as a Yankee privateer against the King's English: "I have too much pride to stand indebted to great Britain for books to learn our children the letters of the alphabet." A good salesman, he toured the U.S. lecturing in his book's behalf, trying to rouse the state legislatures to protect his home growth by copyright. The book caught on, in spite if a frontispiece of Webster resembling a porcupine, which a hostile reviewer said would frighten even a patriotic child.

The speller was only a starter. Before he had finished Webster had published six small textbooks which, says Author Warfel "effectively shaped the destiny of American education for a century." Meantime Webster had plunged into patriotism on a wider scale: politics. His first trip around the U.S. disillusioned him about democracy. He came home disgruntled, almost a monarchist; then he joined the federalists. As an indefatigable writer of letters to the editor, as editor himself, he drove his squeaky quill until he became one of the foremost polemical writers of his time. He advocated unemployment insurance, city planning, forest conservation, gradual abolition of slavery; he condemned the "spoils system"; he invented "boiler plate" journalism. But as the Federalists lost ground, language, which had been his first love, became his main preoccupation. In 1800 he announced plans for a dictionary that would knock Sam Johnson and all British authorities into a cocked hat.

The U.S. was still culturally colonial to England, and loud was the outcry against this "critick and coxcomb general of the U.S.," this "pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot," this "disappointed pedant." His projected volume of "foul and unclean things" was dubbed "Noah's Ark." One of the many jeering letters demanded: "Mind and give us true deffinition of bundling."*  Nothing daunted, Webster went ahead, brought out a small experimental dictionary in 1806. His enemies immediately pounced on his simplified spelling: honor, ax, imagin, catcal, farewel, benum, lether, tung -- his partisan definitions: "Federalist n. A friend to the constitution of the United States", his championing of colloquialisms such as "Who did he see?" and "Them horses." But his revolutionary theory, his no less revolutionary proofs -- that English was a Germanic, not a Latin language, gave them pause. And when his big dictionary appeared, in 1828, the weight of its erudition (he had learned 20 languages to study one), its bulky two volumes, its 70,000 words, flattened the pinprick critics.

   The dictionary cost $20 a set and sold fast. With his other royalties, Webster should have made a killing. But he had constantly mortgaged his credit for immediate cash. He never became a rich man. His magnum  opus out of the way, he turned to his last great task: a revision of the Bible. Reason: to correct mistakes in translation and grammar, expunge offensive words. Webster regarded this job as the most important of his career, and like his dictionary, it set the style for future editions. This done he sat back by his fireside, groaning over his newspaper that told of dreadful doings of the government, and waited with clear Yankee conscience for an unfeared death. 

*High-minded Noah paid no attention, and left well-understood bundling undefined.


Stopdown notes on the text...

coxcomb  (According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) ......  a jesters cap adorned with a strip of red;  a conceited, foolish person.  .......... {Note: coxcomb is an alternate spelling of cock's comb, the jagged red crown on a rooster's head.}

Spoils system ........... Practice of treating government  jobs as plunder ("spoils of war") to be distributed to members of the victorious party.

Bundling (According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) ........ A former custom of an unmarried couple's occupying the same bed without undressing, esp. during courtship.         Note: This was U.S. phenomenon, not European.

    Noah Webster had diverse pursuits.