The difficult Noah Webster and his difficult times

October 25, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, writers, writing.

Noah Webster was a difficult man living in a difficult time.

In 1806, when he published the first edition of his dictionary, it was judged not for its content but by for the political positions of the author. Webster was a Federalist, but he had with Republican attitudes about the language Americans spoke. 

Because of his apostasy, Federalist writers heaped scorn on his efforts at compiling an American dictionary because it included many words that high-born members of society regarded as vulgarisms. Webster let it be known that this volume was just the beginning. He would set out to work on a more complete compendium of the American language. “If he will persist, in spite of common sense, to furnish us with a dictionary we do not want,” one editor wrote, “I will furnish him with a title for it. Let then, the projected volume of foul and unclean things, bear his own christian name, and be called Noah’s Ark.”

Republican writers didn’t like his first dictionary any better than the Federalist reviewers, but for a different reason. Webster was a Federalist. That’s all they needed no know. For that, he was a “pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot.” (These quotations are from Jill Lapore’s “Noah’s Ark,” published in the New Yorker, Nov. 6, 2006.)

Webster had a prickly personality that made him an easy target of critics. He had firm beliefs about his nation and what it would take for America to fulfill its destiny. Throughout his life, Webster acted on the idea that America should have its own identity, its own culture, and its own language. Almost single-handedly, Webster set about creating that language.

More than 20 years before the publication of this first dictionary, Webster published a spelling book in 1783 that became widely and wildly popular — something today we remember as the “blue-backed speller.” It quickly sold enough copies to make Webster independently wealthy and continued to provide him an income throughout his life. The speller gave him the means to pursue his first love: a dictionary of the American language.

The full dictionary that he had given hints of in 1806 was finally published more than 20 years later. By that time, Webster had outlived the earlier controversies and most of his opponents.

A recent biography by Joshua Kendall is The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (2011). Kendall makes a strong case for including Webster among the Founding Fathers of America. He was far more than a maker of dictionaries. Here’s a video of a presentation by Kendall:

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