The Early Webster Years
23. A Grammatical Institute of the English Language.
Webster, Noah. Part II. Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1784.
Webster (1758–1843), who came of age during the American Revolution, attended Yale and then tried without success to establish a career as both a lawyer and a schoolmaster. He wrote a speller (1783), this grammar (1784), and a reader (1785). Shortly after the grammar appeared, Webster was accused by the pseudonymous Dilworth’s Ghost of “transcribing” others’ work in a “laughable affair.” His written defense against literary theft was that “every [grammarian] whose works I have seen is liable to the charge of plagiarism.” (Cf. no. 42.)
24. Letter of Lindley Murray to John Elliott of London (15 Dec. 1785).
This cover letter about an ailing American Quaker minister—Thomas Ross—seems unremarkable. But in fact it relates to what made Lindley Murray an author in the first place. Ross had fallen ill in York, where he was to spend a night or two with the Murrays. He died at their house nearly four months later. In the interim, Ross and Murray had long philosophical discussions. A year later, Murray published his first book: The Power of Religion on the Mind in Retirement, Affliction, and at the Approach of Death (1787). Without this experience, the father of English grammar might not have published at all.
25. The Accidence: Or First Rudiments of English Grammar.
Devis, Ellin. 5th ed. London: Bedwell Law, 1786.
From a family of respected painters, Devis (1746–1820) was the schoolmistress at various London schools. She taught the novelist Maria Edgeworth, who at 13 and 14 was miserable as Devis’s student because her superior intellect was neither recognized nor challenged. As founder of the school then known as “the Young Ladies’ Eton,” Devis wrote this book to make the study of grammar “less difficult to children.” Disclaiming originality, she said that “the greatest part is selected from the works of our best grammarians.” She was uncommonly forthright.
26. Letter of Noah Webster to Tench Coxe of Philadelphia.
(10 Dec. 1787).
Webster angrily addressed Tench Coxe (1755–1824), an economist and Pennsylvania politician. He was upset that “a draft for 20 dollars” for some pamphlets had been “returned unanswered.” Philadelphians, Webster asserted, were distinguished for their “want of attention & politeness.” The responsible parties should be informed that their “delay, evasion or refusal, by whatever name it ought to be called,” is just a “repetition of incivilities or rather injuries” that Webster had suffered. Two days after this letter was written, Pennsylvania ratified the U.S. Constitution.
The portrait here is of Coxe, not Webster.
27. Dissertations on the English Language.
Webster, Noah. Boston: Isaiah Thomas & Co., 1789.
This book is a compilation of Webster’s many speeches made as an itinerant promoter of his three-volume Grammatical Institute (see no. 23). Webster had unfortunately become enthralled with John Horne Tooke’s etymological follies, including the idea that if isn’t a conjunction but a verb in the imperative mood. According to Webster, this “fact can no more be controverted than any point of history, or any truth that our senses present to the mind.” He also thought yes to be a verb.
28. Letter from Noah Webster to Josiah Blakeley (10 Apr. 1791).
In 1791, Noah Webster was perhaps at a low point financially. Surplus copies of his Dissertations (no. 27) lay on hand and might have to be “sold for wrapping paper.” Webster had become dependent on his rich brother-in-law, James Greenleaf, a fraudster worth some $400 million in today’s dollars. (Soon Greenleaf would be imprisoned and destitute.) The letter displayed here is a desperate plea for “procuring a sum of money.” About this time, Webster made disastrous deals selling unlimited rights in his speller for paltry amounts. He lacked business sense.
29. The Rudiments of Latin and English Grammar.
Adam, Alexander. 4th ed. Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute et al., 1793.
After attending Edinburgh University as an “impecunious student,” Adam (1741–1809) became a headmaster and classical scholar. Adam was more interested in Latin than in English, and he thought departures from the Latinate model to be degenerate. His students included Sir Walter Scott, Lord Brougham, and Lord Cockburn. In 1809, he had a seizure while teaching. Five days later, on his deathbed, his final words were directed to an imaginary class: “But it grows dark, boys—you may go. We must put off the rest till tomorrow.”