American's own The Professor and the Madman: a story of Noah Webster, author of American English.
Noah Webster's name is now synonymous with the dictionary he created, but his story is not nearly so ubiquitous. Webster hobnobbed with various Founding Fathers and was a young confidant of George Washington and Ben Franklin. He started America's first daily newspaper, predating Alexander Hamilton's New York Post. His "blue-backed speller" for schoolchildren sold millions of copies and influenced early copyright law. But perhaps most important, Webster was an ardent supporter of a unified, definitively American culture, distinct from the British, at a time when the United States of America were anything but unified - and his dictionary of American English is a testament to that.
©2010 Joshua Kendall (P)2011 Penguin
The part of this book that deals with the creation and aftermath of the dictionary -- roughly the second half -- is moderately interesting. But the rest of Webster's story is not especially compelling, and the man himself comes across as quirky, at best, and a miserable human being, at his worst. Compared to the traditional Founding Fathers, Webster was simply lacking in impact, spirit, temperament, outlook, optimism, complexity, generosity -- you name it. Kendall convincingly conveys the "obsession" part of Webster's life, and he repeatedly asserts that Webster created an American culture, but the latter claim is essentially undocumented and, therefore, unpersuasive. The narrator makes the most of the material he has to work with but ultimately, I'm afriad, it's much ado about very little.
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