Noah Webster, the nation's best-known lexicographer, is my great-great-great grandfather. So you'd think I'd have insisted, back when my kids were in grade school, they soak up a little family history by visiting our ancestor's 18th-Century birthplace in West Hartford. But no, the trip never happened... at least in part because of my own conflict about Webster.
Sure, he created a world-famous, ground-breaking dictionary... but hey, it was a dictionary, a long list of words! The project, which took nearly 30 years, was important, the book indispensable to many, yet struck me as uncreative, bloodless. What are words, without a story?
Well, there is a story behind the man, and this vest-pocket museum tells it pretty well. Webster didn't start on his Dictionary until he was in his 40s; he was trained as a lawyer, then abandoned law for teaching, but his initial fame resulted from partisan journalism, political tracts, and town-by-town lecturing. In the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton recruited Webster to start and edit the Federalist newspaper, American Minerva, in New York City (the city's first daily — Hamilton didn't start the New York Post until 1801), where he continued to push his interests in abolitionism, school textbooks, public health and copyright law.
Self-interest drove this last obsession, at least in part: Webster hoped to protect sales of his 1783 Elementary Spelling Book, better known as the “Blue-Backed Speller.” Due in large measure to unauthorized copying, the speller did not make him rich, despite selling some 100 million copies by the 20th Century... making it, after the Bible, perhaps the most widely circulated book in the U.S.
The thread weaving these interests together — and the Dictionary above all — was Webster's passion for nation-building. What he saw, unlike most of his peers, was that nations are created as much through culture as through politics — a major reason that Joshua Kendall's recent Webster biography bears the title “The Forgotten Founding Father.” Kendall paints Webster as a fairly disagreeable figure — arrogant, socially awkward, and likely obsessive-compulsive — but you sense Webster gave up on the public arena when — the U.S. established and the Revolutionary War a distant memory — politics became divisive rather than unifying (gee, sounds like Washington, D.C., this very day!).
Considering that Webster was called “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” and a “Pedagogue and Quack” by Thomas Jefferson's supporters in the Democratic-Republican party, and “a traitor to the cause of Federalism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a maniacal pedant,” and “a toad in the service of sans-cullotism” by a rival in his own party (for speaking well of Jean-Jacques Rousseau)... is it any wonder he left the public stage? (More invectives can be found on the Noah Webster Wikipedia page, which draws heavy on work by historian Joseph Ellis.) Webster knew better than most how language can be misused... and that to realize its own vision, a young nation needed its own language.
He decamped to New Haven in 1798, where he spent most of the rest of his life — another 40-odd years, essentially in retirement — working on the Dictionary. You won't learn much about those decades at his boyhood home... but that's just as well, because there's less drama in a bookworm's existence.
The Noah Webster House (which has a very informative website) isn't so much about Webster himself as life in 18th-Century Connecticut, with the tour guide showing visitors through the original four-room house and demonstrating how residents spun wool and flax (as did Noah's father, a weaver as well as a farmer), cooked inside a monstrous, walk-in oven, washed clothes and dishes without the benefit of plumbing.
A hard life? No doubt... but for Noah Webster, also an engaged life, even if he did often suffer, as Kendall notes, from “extreme depression” and “anxiety.” So it goes when your hopes for your native land are utopian... a word that Webster defined, incidentally, as “chimerical; fanciful.”