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“Noah’s ark was so full of words it sank, so they put the words in a big book; but now, they are allon the internet.  The end.”  This child’s short version of Noah Webster’s life and work gets some of the story correct, for the remaining details and possible corrections you will need The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall.

Noah Webster was most fortunate to have lived in an era when the worst a doctor could do to you was bleed and leech you to death.  He lived and thrived in response to several personality and mental disorders.  Had he been chemically doused as doctors do today, they would have left him with a Rotary membership and nothing more.

Kendall lays out the good and bad on Webster and happily the good outweighs the bad.  Against strong resistance, Webster wrote the most influential speller in early American life, as well as many other educational, political, and cultural books.  The project that consumed most of his life was the compilation and publication of a comprehensive English dictionary in 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language.  With this dictionary he became a renown world intellectual.

The details of his checkered publishing career are dull but important because in response to the lack of protection for an author’s work, he was a pioneer in promoting copyright protection for intellectual property in America.

In reading Kendall’s well written biography of Webster we can take a relaxed view of the man and his eventual triumphs; but for many of his contemporaries, he was a skunk on paper and in person.  These contemporaries disliked his Federalism, his anti-democracy views, his spelling reforms, his views on public health issues, his Americanization of English, his condescension, his always right attitude, his sometimes shaky scholarship, his constant self-promotion, and his vilifying of those he did not agree with.  After that list there is no need to go into how he treated his family.

With this book you will be happy to welcome Noah Webster into your circle of Founding Fathers.  Charles Marlin

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