Webster, Chesterton, a World War II hero, and a clock that hasn’t quit for 600 years: newsletter, Oct. 26, 2018

October 29, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter.

 This newsletter was emailed to everyone on Jim’s email list (3,045) on October 19, 2018

This week you will meet a couple of “colossal geniuses,” one from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. You probably know of these guys: Noah Webster and G.K. Chesterton. I’ll admit I had heard of both, but I never knew much about either. I came across them by accident, pursuing other topics.

Both were journalists, had agile minds, and spread themselves over a wide range of subject. Both had energy far beyond the norm. Both produced a body of work that had wide influence — influence that can still be felt today. Let me know how you feel about these fellows — and anything else that’s on you mind.

Meanwhile, I hope, too, you’ve had a wonderful week and are looking forward to a great weekend.


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The difficult Noah Webster and his difficult times

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: https://www.c-span.org/video/?299402-1/the-forgotten-founding-father


Luck, chance, courage and daring – another heroic tale from World War II 

Joachim Ronneberg, like so many other courageous individuals during World War II, tried to do what he could to fight off the Nazi invasion and oppression of his nation. He didn’t mean to become a hero. But that’s what happened.

n 1943, Ronneberg and eight fellow resistance fighters skied across the Telemark pine forest of Norway, mostly at night, until they reached the hydroelectric plant at Rjukan, where the Nazis were producing “heavy water,” a vital ingredient for making the atomic bomb that, if produced, could have won the war.

At Rjukan, they broke into the plant, made their way past a barracks of Nazi soldiers, found their way down to the level where the heavy water was being produced, and planted the explosives.

At the last moment, Ronneberg cut the fuses so that they would burn for 30 seconds rather than the two minutes that were in the originally planned. Doing that set the explosives off and created enough confusion that all nine were able to escape without firing a shot and without a scratch.

That was just one of the pieces of good fortune that the raiders encountered during their amazing feat.

After the war, Ronneberg became a journalist and worked for the public radio system of Norway.

Ronneberg died over the weekend. He was 99 years old and the last surviving member of the raiding party. You can read more about the raid and about his life at the links below.

WWII Hero Credits Luck and Chance in Foiling Hitler’s Nuclear Ambitions – The New York Times

Joachim Ronneberg’s obituary in the New York Times 

Related: A member of the Dutch resistance and an assassin – at 14 years old 

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”


G.K. Chesterton: an enormous man with a ‘colossal genius’

In so many ways, Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton (1874-1936) was an enormous man.

— Physically, he was massive: 6 feet 4 inches tall, he weighed more than 250 pounds. He had a shock of hair that on many days looked like it had exploded out of the right side of his head.

— His writing production almost defies belief: 4,000 essays, 80 books, several hundred poems, and numerous plays.

— His range of writing covered multiple genres: non-fiction, critiques and reviews, mystery novels, editorials, social issues, biographies (Charles Dickens and St. Francis of Assisi, to name a couple), and others. He produced a weekly newsletter, G.K.’s Weekly, for much of the last 15 years of his life. There were few topics and genres that escaped Chesterton’s pen.

— Chesterton’s wit was original and entertaining. He had a talent for turning words, phrases, and ideas inside out and forming structures that were brief and memorable. For instance: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

— He was friends with most of the major intellects of his day, even those with whom he differed. He once said to George Bernard Shaw, “To look at you, one would think that famine had struck England.” Shaw replied, “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.” Shaw also said of Chesterton, “He was a man of colossal genius.” Besides Shaw, he was friends with the likes Hillaire Belloc and H.G. Wells, among many other notables.

— His absent-mindedness was legendary. One of the many stories about it was that Chesterton once found himself in a train station he did not recognize. He telegraphed his wife: “Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” She replied, “Home.” Fortunately, Chesterton could write just about anywhere, and he did a lot of writing in train stations.

— The influence of his writings spread far and wide. C.S. Lewis attributed his conversion to Christianity to Chesterton’s writings; Mahatma Gandhi was “thunderstruck” by a Chesterton piece published in 1909; Irish Republican leader Michael Collins read and re-read Chesterton’s novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill; and the list goes on and on.

We will explore some of those influences in future posts. Meanwhile, enjoy the caricature presented here. I think G.K. might like it. Among his many areas of genius was the fact that he was an artist and began his career as an illustrator. While working as an illustrator for two London publishing houses, he began writing freelance articles of art criticism.

In that writing, Chesterton found his true calling. Fortunately for the world of letters, he followed that path.


Toss your sundials – mechanical clocks are here to stay

You probably have a sundial or two still laying around the house. Well, it’s probably time to let the garbage guys (and gals) carry it away.

Mechanical clocks are here, and they’re not going away.

That could have been the message to the people of Salisbury, England, in 1386 when the mechanical clock was installed in its now famous cathedral. That clock is still running, making it the oldest mechanical clock in the world, according to those who know about these things.

According to Atlas Obscura:

The design of this clock introduced to Salisbury the also relatively new concept of standardized hours, rather than the ever-shifting increments, based on the seasons, that came before, in the era of sundials. The clock is wound manually, through the turning of large wheels, which raise weights. The descending weights turn rope-bound barrels, which in turn power the clock.

The clock was actually “discovered” by a clock enthusiast in 1928. It had been ignored for generations. It underwent extensive renovation in 1956 and today functions much as it did when it was first installed. Source: Medieval Clock at Salisbury Cathedral – Salisbury, England – Atlas Obscura



Fred F.: I have a lot of fruit trees and berry bushes. The yield of all are way down. How could I entice a beekeeper to “lend” me one of his hives. I use no toxic chemicals (neither do my neighbors), nor do I bother bees at work. I do all my trimming in the winter, so as to not disturb any wild life in the area. I do go after wasps on the house, as they are a terror to everyone – I use a soap/water mix on a wand like hose attachment at street pressure at dusk, then knock the empty nests off the eaves the next day. Your advice would be very welcome.

You should talk with a local beekeeper and see what it would take for him or her to locate some hives near you when the trees bloom.

Jan. L.>>> As a writing teacher of several decades, I never cared for the advice “write like you talk.”<<<
I think it depends who you’re saying it to. I first heard this from a grade-school teacher (I think it was third grade — she was prompting us to write a letter to a classmate who had moved to another State).
I’ve been doing just that ever since. And notwithstanding all the papers I wrote in high school and at university and for other courses in the years and decades afterwards, my personal preferred genre is ‘letter writing’. 
Thanks for an interesting and intriguing newsletter.


Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: G.K. Chesterton (caricature)

Best quote of the week:

Will people ever be wise enough to refuse to follow bad leaders or to take away the freedom of other people? Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, author, and lecturer (1884-1962) 

Helping those in need

Hurricanes on the coasts and a tsunami in the Pacific. All over and in between, people in this world need help. This  weekly reminder to all of us (especially me) that the needs are never completely met takes on special urgency.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 


You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The bees in October, Ray Bradbury, Walter Isaacson, and the Eugenics Crusade: newsletter, October 19, 2018




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