The Forgotten Founder: Noah Webster’s Obsession And The Creation Of An American Culture, by Joshua Kendall
My biggest gripe with this book, and it is not even a very big gripe, is the title. There are a great many forgotten founders, and Noah Webster is only one of them. This book definitely brings this obscure founder, remembered for those of us that think fondly of his dictionary, to the attention of contemporary readers. It doesn’t hurt that the author, who has developed quite a reputation for writing about obsessives, is in his element when talking about Webster’s life and its complexities. Besides his dictionary, Webster was an interesting man to read about, active in politics (at least during the early ages of the American republic) as well as in the desire to assist women in getting higher education, besides being a bit of a curmudgeon to those around him, and he lived a life that is certainly interesting enough to read about. If you like reading about obsessive but successful people who were not the easiest to live with, this book (and the author’s other work) is certainly well worth recommending. It takes a special kind of person who be a compiler of information, and clearly Webster was that kind of person, for better and worse.
This book of more than 300 pages takes a generally chronological look through the life and achievements of Noah Webster, beginning (as is customary) in media res with Webster building a friendship with Washington and encouraging his help in building up American nationalism. And it is the project of American nationalism that the author spends a great deal of discussing, including Webster’s pioneering work in encouraging an American approach to orthography and pronunciation, his rather shaky understanding of the history of words in English, and Webster’s determination that America develop its own independent verbal culture apart from Great Britain. Throughout the discussion of Webster’s writings (including a lost decade) there are commentaries about his occasional money problems, his marriage and relationship with his children, and the way he overcome his struggles with melancholy. There is even a discussion of the afterlife of Webster through his dictionary and its publishing history, although this is very brief. The author manages to do a good job at exploring the author’s own personal writing (without the airbrushing of his family’s hagiography) and also his personal life, which was full of problems with others, especially as he grew older and more rigid in his thinking.
This book, along with the others I have read from the author, prompts a serious question about the relationship between American society and mental illness. How is it that some people are able to find productive uses for mental illness that end up providing something worthwhile to society at large even if their own personal lives are often greatly harmed by virtue of their obsessiveness and melancholy, while many others are destroyed by their mental illness? To what extent is this a societal and to what extent is this an individual matter? To know that so much achievement in our society is the result of people whose mental health made their lives (and that of their families) difficult adds a strong sense of melancholy to this work and to the author’s work as a whole. Knowing the upside of mental health, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, is certainly a good thing, but to celebrate the achievements that can come with mental illness includes a recognition of the toll that mental illness takes on people and on their loved ones, whether it is through a genetic burden or through the sort of experiences that happen when one has to deal with mental illness.