The Roaring 1820s
44. An American Grammar.
Brown, James. Troy, N.Y.: Francis Adancourt, 1820.
Brown (1798?–1865?) opened an “American Grammar Academy” in Philadelphia and wrote a series of grammars that “differed much from all others.” To say the least. In this one, he posited 33 distinct parts of speech. By 1836, he had retreated to 6 and become a madcap neologist writing like this: “When there is no nepoeclide understood, the nepoecorm with which the poeclade does not gnomefy, gives a new mono.” No kidding.
45. A Grammar of the English Language.
Sutcliffe, Joseph. 2d ed. London: Baldwin, Craddock & Joy, 1821.
In this comparatively scholarly grammar, Sutcliffe (1762–1856), a theologian, praised Lindley Murray’s “engaging ease and perspicuity of style.” Because “our etymologies groan for relief,” Sutcliffe tried to supply them—probably using Horne Tooke’s methods (no. 35). Having completed both editions in his 50s, Sutcliffe lived into his 90s. About two years before he died, a cart knocked him down, breaking his leg. Nevertheless, he continued his occasional preaching, despite a faulty memory, and would often “break out in singing sacred melodies with the joy of a child.”
46. The Grammatical Key: Which by Questions and Answers Represents the Method of Learning the Parts of Speech.
Wilbur, Josiah. 2d ed. Bellows Falls, Vt.: Blake, Cutler & Co., 1822.
Wilbur’s curious approach to grammar involved pictograms to represent the parts of speech. One competitor said these diagrams were “more adapted to the sagacity of Euclid than to the capacity of the young mind.” Yet Wilbur dazzled people with his public demonstrations. In 1820, a Baltimore physician declared astonishment at hearing “a young miss about ten years of age . . . solve the most intricate [grammatical] questions with facility and ease.” All Wilbur’s students, he said, could “parse the most difficult sentences . . . giving definitions and rules for every word.”
47. English Grammar in Familiar Lectures.
Kirkham, Samuel. 5th ed. Cincinnati: N. & G. Guilford, 1827.
Kirkham (1797–1843) inspired Abraham Lincoln, who as a teenager walked miles to get a copy of the grammar and then memorized it. By 1829, the book was selling 22,000 copies annually. The big foldout was a major innovation. An aficionado of phrenology, Kirkham left his skull to his wife, then to his son, and then to a phrenological society. His outré obituary began, “His head was 21 inches around . . . , but was more high and long than large at the base.” The loving remembrance goes on to say Kirkham was among “the most irritable and fretful of men.”
48. The Institutes of English Grammar.
Brown, Goold. N.Y.: The author, 1823.
Brown (1791–1857), who taught in various academies over the years, came to be known as “the grammarian’s grammarian.” (See no. 68.) He did more than anyone else to cement, in the popular mind, the inaccurate idea that grammar involves inviolable rules. Although his later work would level invective at competitors, this early book is free of it. “A small treatise on Grammar,” he wrote, “like a small map of the world, may serve to give the learner a correct idea of the more prominent features of the subject.”
49. The Goold Brown Cache of Letters (1823–1836).
The 39 letters here collected, from Goold to his brother William, give fascinating insights into the struggles of an ambitious grammarian in the early 19th century. Battling constant financial worries, disappointments, loneliness, and career uncertainties, Brown peppered his letters with mordant observations about his fragile health and precarious circumstances. In 1833, he wrote: “To write books is to sow the wind. Schoolkeeping & the labour of authorship are alike exhausting; and sometimes I think to quit both and go to farming.”
50. Lindley Murray’s Last Will and Testament as a Bibliophile (1825).
Although Murray thought he was near death in 1794, he lived another 32 years and became known to posterity as “the father of English grammar.” He willed 20 volumes to his namesake William Murray Tuke, the great-nephew of Ann Tuke, who had encouraged Murray to write the English Grammar (see no. 31). William went on to found Barclays Bank. His son, grandson, and great-grandson—Tukes all—served as chairs of Barclays into the 21st century. In 1996, I acquired Murray’s copy of Johnson’s Dictionary, with the will affixed, in London at a dealer on Charing Cross Road.
51. The Philosophy of Language Illustrated: An Entirely New System of Grammar, Wholly Divested of Scholastic Rubbish [etc.].
Sherman, John. Trenton Falls, N.Y.: Dauby & Maynard, 1826.
The grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Sherman (1772–1828) wrote the most inflamed English grammar in history. The subtitle of the book, one reviewer wrote, “has a fearfully belligerent aspect and hurls defiance into the teeth of the enemy.” A cultish Unitarian minister who had been expelled from the church, Sherman claimed to “deserve well of his country” for liberating grammar “from the incumbrance of long received errours.” He aimed his book not at “that stupid bigoted class of prejudiced men” but at the “truly learned.”
52. Philosophic Grammar of the English Language.
Cardell, William S. Philadelphia: Uriah Hunt, 1827.
Having lost his father at sea before age one, Cardell (1780–1828) became a novelist specializing in sea stories for boys. In 1820, he founded the American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres, with John Quincy Adams as president and Justice Joseph Story as vice-president. Cardell was secretary. It collapsed after withering criticism in the North American Review. As for grammar, the “false principles” of his predecessors, in Cardell’s view, were “not dissimilar to those of Ptolemian astronomy.”
53. A Practical Grammar of the English Language.
Nutting, Rufus. 5th ed. Montpelier, Vt.: E.P. Walton, 1829.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1817, Nutting (1793–1878) began teaching at a “female seminary” in Catskill, New York, and soon married one of his pupils. They moved to Ohio and later Michigan, where he insistently taught pupils that the passive voice doesn’t exist in English. Teachers who thought otherwise were causing a horrific “aggregate of injury” because children thereby had lodged in their minds “a disgust, which extends, perhaps, not only to the English but to every other language.” All quite mystifying.
54. A Practical Grammar of the English Language.
Greene, Roscoe G. Portland, Me.: Shirley & Hyde, 1829.
Greene (1796–1840) packed a lot into 44 years: as a grammar teacher, as Maine Secretary of State until his political downfall in 1835, as recipient of an honorary master’s degree in 1839, and as an accused fraudster posthumously exonerated. His grammar features inscrutable diagrams for moods of verbs: pupils were to have their fingers “follow the successive connections to each extremity”—whatever that means. The only other illustration shows a teacher hitting a child with a rod to illustrate the sentences I strike and I am struck.