Imagining Language in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War

Imagining Language in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War

by Michael P. Kramer


View All Available Formats & Editions
Use Standard Shipping. For guaranteed delivery by December 24, use Express or Expedited Shipping.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691605333
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1213
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Imagining Language in America

From the Revolution to the Civil War

By Michael P. Kramer


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06882-4


"NOW is the Time, and This is the Country": How Noah Webster Invented American English

Strictly speaking, Noah Webster did not invent American English. The language spoken in the United States, shaped by the host of diverse factors that constitute American culture in a complex and ongoing process of change and development—this language cannot in good conscience be joined syntactically to the subject Noah Webster, nor to the verb invent. To be sure, Webster did try to have an impact upon the development of American English—and to an extent he did succeed: the enormous popularity and influence of the Blue-Back Speller (originally published as the first part of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783) and of the American Dictionary of 1828 can hardly be denied or even measured. But not even Webster himself, little known for his humility, would ever have made my title's extravagant claim. His declared goal, however grandly he or his hagiographers proclaimed it, was standardization and (less successfully) reform. He appealed repeatedly for a national language, in print and at the podium, but he did not, by any stretch of the imagination or looseness of definition, invent American English. However, we are still faced with what may be rhetorically termed the inventio in Webster's philological writings: although he may not be said to have actually invented the language—perhaps because he did not—he did work hard to fictionalize it, to take hold of the unruly creation brought forth by the culture upon the continent and, by transcribing its words and formulating its rules in his various texts, to re-create it in the image of the America he imagined. To read Webster on language is to read American literature.

This is not how Webster's writing has traditionally been perceived. In The Quest for Nationality (1957), for instance, Benjamin Spencer could remark that no one in the post-Revolutionary period more "unremittingly insisted that 'America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics"' than Noah Webster. But Spencer was led to infer that, despite the memorable battle cries, "belletristic authors could find among his exhortations disappointingly few hints as to how such independence might be achieved." He painted Webster approvingly as an indefatigable linguist, "toil[ing] at lexicography in order to free America from a reliance on English opinions and English books" but felling short of the politico-aesthetic goal of a truly American literature, a goal not achieved until (following Matthiessen) the middle of the nineteenth century. For Spencer, Webster was only a type, as it were, of the fully realized American writer, adumbrating the coming of Whitman (Spencer's example), but caught in the progressive design of American literary history as a lesser, partial precursor.

Spencer's brief account of Webster is significant for several reasons. First of all, it exemplifies the sort of problematic disciplinarity I have tried to outline in my Introduction, a disciplinarity that at once valorizes literary works because they articulate theories of language and discounts linguistic works because they are not literary. Spencer includes Webster in The Quest for Nationality precisely because he is a lexicographer and then limits his importance through a categorical distinction between lexicography and literature: both critical acts are authorized—just as his history of ideas is emplotted—by the historical and aesthetic assumptions that sustain Matthiessen's canon. Second, Spencer's account embodies dearly what I take to be the central problematic of Webster scholarship in general: the need to make sense of apparently conflicting tendencies in Webster's writings, to reconcile, most significantly, Webster's strident nationalistic rhetoric with the seemingly tamer substance of his major work. Earlier scholars, intent on building Webster's reputation, tended to obscure the problem, celebrating Webster's rhetoric, while either ignoring, denying, glossing over, or apologizing for the derivative, "un-American" aspects of his texts. More recently, scholars have looked squarely at Webster's inconsistencies, placing them at the center of what has become a significant reappraisal of Webster's life and work. The new interest in the study of language in America—in its political, social, philosophical, and aesthetic implications—and a more profound understanding of the conflicts and anxieties that characterized American life during the period of the early republic have transformed Webster from a previous generation's "schoolmaster to America" into, as one writer has recently summarized it, "a man of many parts—complex, full of intellectual tensions and paradoxes ... often confused." Spencer's particular resolution of the problem fells between these two approaches and is of a piece with his disciplinary assumptions. By fixing him at a particular point within the progressive continuum of American literary history defined by Matthiessen, he is able (tacitly) to reconcile Webster's persistent calls for literary independence and his inability either to produce or suggest suitable models: like all the other writers who lived before "the Age of Emerson and Whitman," Webster lived too soon and his efforts were bound to be partial. But to achieve this narrative resolution, Spencer must necessarily suppress Webster's own eighteenth-century understanding of the quest for a national literature and the role of his own writing in that quest. More generally, he must ignore the literary sophistication of the post-Revolutionary generation.

Three decades after its publication, The Quest for Nationality remains the most comprehensive survey we have of the campaign for a uniquely American literature, and if it distorts the nature of Webster's philological efforts, it also reminds us at the same time that Webster may be considered in terms of a literary tradition—both American and (as a revolutionary tradition has to revolt against something) European. And it is precisely in this respect—as a literary problem—that the question of Webster's contradictory tendencies has yet to be addressed. After all, what gives coherence to Webster's long, prolific, and fascinatingly variegated career is the fact that he was, above all, a man of letters: over the course of sixty years he wrote or compiled dozens of books, pamphlets, and articles on everything from politics and religion to natural history and epidemiology, not to mention the primary focuses of his career, language and education. Though much scholarly attention has been given to Webster as a linguistic and educational reformer, and though we now understand better the importance of politics and religion in his evolving intellectual makeup, we still do not appreciate Webster as a writer, as a determined, self-conscious practitioner of (as he understood it) a distinctly American discourse. Yet, from the very beginning, when he first "look[ed] into our language and the methods of instruction practiced in this country" and became "convinced of the necessity of improving the one and correcting the other," he thought of his efforts at reform in literary terms, that, as he put it, "a person of [his] youth may have some influence in exciting [in America] a spirit of literary industry" (LNW, 3–4; italics mine). This is not to suggest that Webster was literary in the same way Whitman (or Longfellow) was to be literary. To the contrary (and most simply, for there are other important distinctions), Webster and his contemporaries included in the category of literature much writing—scientific, political, theological—that Whitman (and we latter-day Romantics) would pointedly exclude, and vice versa. What I want to suggest is that, in general, we can learn much about Webster by taking his writing seriously in the ways we take more conventionally Uterary writing seriously and that, in particular, Webster's early writings on language—A Grammatical Institute of the English Language and Dissertations on the English Language—need to be considered, not as the harbingers of literary nationality, but as significant and rhetorically complex early attempts to imagine both an American language and linguistics and, thereby, to define and exemplify American literary independence.


Noah Webster compiled the initial two parts of his first work, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in 1782, while he was teaching school in Goshen, New York, and "the American army was lying [nearby] on the bank of the Hudson." He published the first part of it—the elementary speller that would become one of the three best-selling books in American history—"at the close of the revolution," only months after the Treaty of Paris formally put an end to the hostilities. The timing was of great significance to Webster: even late in his career, well after his youthful enthusiasm for revolutionary principles had subsided, Webster would continue to recall the coincidence of events. It is no wonder, then, that the original title of the Institute was The American Instructor or that the slim, otherwise unpretentious volume was couched in a rhetoric of revolution. Forcefully attacking his British predecessors, Webster's now oft-quoted introduction sought to establish fundamental connections between the political transformations of the previous eight years and the pedagogic and linguistic reforms he envisioned for the new republic. "Europe is grown old in folly, corruption and tyranny," Webster wrote. Now that the war was over, it was imperative that Americans carry the revolution into the world of letters, for, he felt, "an attention to literature must be the principal bulwark against the encroachments of civil and ecclesiastical tyrants, and American Liberty can die only with her Maecenases."

But in many ways Webster's book was neither revolutionary nor particularly American. For the most part, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language constituted a modest revised version of Thomas Dilworth's popular New Guide to the English Tongue (1740) and, as such, a minor variation on a well-known British theme. Webster argued that "the standard of pronunciation"—perhaps his major concern in Part I—should be neither radically democratic nor particularly American "but the customary pronunciation of the most accurate scholars and literary Gentlemen," and he readily deferred to Johnson's dictionary on matters of "spelling and accenting ... as in point of orthography this seems to be the most approved authority in the language" (GI, 6, Il).13 Indeed, the major contemporaneous criticism leveled against his Institute—by, among others, a pseudonymous "Dilworth's Ghost"—was plagiarism. And in fact, Webster did little to deny the derivativeness of his text. In applying to the Connecticut legislature for copyright, he described his speller in terms of its "amendments" to Dilworth and his proposed grammar (the second part of the Grammatical Institute) as "an abridgment ... extracted from the most approved modern writers upon the subject, with his own observations and some notes pointing out the most common and flagrant errors in speaking and writing, the whole being reduced to the capacity of children" (LNW, 1–2). After publication, when answering the accusation that he had been guilty of merely "compiling and transcribing" his Institute, he remarked only "that every grammar that was ever written is a compilation," reasoning that the "man who arranges the principles of the languages in the best form and reduces the ideas to the easiest method compiles the best Grammar" (LNW, 13).

To be sure, some of Webster's pedagogic reforms were substantial—his revision of Dilworth's method of syllabic division, for example. And his substitution of "the names of the United States, the counties in each, &c." for Dilworth's "twelve or fifteen pages devoted to names of English, Scotch, and Irish towns and boroughs" was certainly, and appropriately, American (GI, 11,10). Moreover, Webster was not alone in feeling acutely the need for change: others readily concurred and greeted Webster's revisions as welcome innovations. "Dilworth's grammatical plan is much worse than nothing," Joel Barlow wrote to him. "It holds up a scarecrow in the English language, and lads once lugged into it when young are afraid of all kinds of grammar all their days after." Upon reading the Institute, Timothy Kckering acclaimed it as "the very thing I have so long wished for, being much dissatisfied with any spelling book I had seen before." Elizur Goodrich agreed that it was "not only ingenious, but a real improvement upon former treatises of this kind" and even cautioned the fledgling author that his "zeal" to reform Dilworth's method of syllabification was "rather intemperate." Still, Webster's claim that "one half of [Dilworth's] work is totally useless and the other half defective and erroneous" was certainly exaggerated (GI, 10). Webster's former teacher Joseph Buckminster, who observed in support of his student that "no person that has paid any attention to the State of our language or the manner in which children are led to an acquaintance with it but have been sensible that there was room for improvement," chided Webster for the shrillness of his criticisms of Dilworth and wondered, rather pointedly, "if an ill natured world does not ascribe some of [Webster's critical] observations not so much to [Dilworth's] deficiencies as to [Webster's] desire to give currency to [his] Institute."

We see the sort of interpretive quandary Webster presents to the historian. On one hand, he labors to secure a place within the current discourse on linguistic pedagogy, to be perceived as someone who has mastered a tradition (a primarily conservative tradition at that) and has preserved its best features. On the other hand, his stance is rejectionist and he presents the changes he introduces as revolutionary in nature. Given Webster's strident personality, Buckminster's evaluation of his student's self-promotional motives offers a cogent biographical explanation. And certainly other equally compelling psychobiographical interpretations may be found of the young American's verbal tar-and-feathering of the author—by then an institution—whom Barlow called "the nurse of us 311." But to resort to these or other sorts of extratextual explanations (like Spencer's historical antecedence) is not so much to explain Webster's rhetoric as to explain it away. It does not change the feet that Webster's revolution against Dilworth (such as it was) is inscribed in the text itself—in the rhetoric of its preface, in the contiguity of its preface and the body of the text—and announces itself as a set of intertextual responses, both to the Institute's generic British predecessors (particularly the New Guide) and to the radical political writing that flourished in America during the war years (particularly the works of Thomas Paine). Webster may seem to say one thing and mean another, but the paradoxical nature of Webster's revolution is manifestly a literary problem, not an ethical one, and deserves to be understood as such.

We can best begin to appreciate the literariness of Webster's hostility toward Dilworth by looking closely at the New Guide, not primarily to elucidate its substantive methodology but to uncover its imaginative underpinnings—to fill in the cultural spaces (as it were) between the columns of spelling words and lists of grammar rules and to bring to the surface the ideological assumptions that underlie the text and inform, most explicitly, the narrative, figurative, and even compositorial structure of its preface. To understand how Webster invented American English, in other words, we will first have to explain how Dilworth invented English.


Excerpted from Imagining Language in America by Michael P. Kramer. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xv
  • Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Works, pg. xvii
  • Introduction: The Study of Language and the American Renaissance, pg. 1
  • Chapter One. “NOW is the Time, and This is the Country”: How Noah Webster Invented American English, pg. 35
  • Chapter Two. “A Fine Ambiguity”: Longfellow, Language, and Literary History, pg. 64
  • Chapter Three. “A Tongue According”: Whitman and the Literature of Language Study, pg. 90
  • Chapter Four. Consensus through Ambiguity: Why Language Matters to The Federalist, pg. 119
  • Chapter Five. Language in a “Christian Commonwealth”: Horace Bushnell’s Cultural Criticism, pg. 137
  • Chapter Six. Beyond Symbolism: Philosophy of Language in The Scarlet Letter, pg. 162
  • Conclusion: From Logocracy to Renaissance, pg. 198
  • Notes, pg. 203
  • Index, pg. 235

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews