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The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua C. Kendall

The Book

The Forgotten Founding Father - Book Cover“This is by far the best, and best written, life of Webster. Kendall makes a convincing case that Webster invented American nationalism long before the American nation came into existence.”

—Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and His Excellency: George Washington

Noah Webster (1758-1843) was more than just America’s greatest lexicographer.  He was also a Founding Father who helped define American culture.   In 1783, he published the first edition of his legendary spelling book, which would teach five generations of Americans how to read.  A leading Federalist, who was a confidant of both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Webster was in Philadelphia during the Consitutional Convention where he  wrote a highly influential essay on behalf of the nation’s founding document.  During the greater part of the 1790s,  he edited American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper.  A dedicated public servant, he served as a state rep in both Connecticut and Massachusetts.  “America’s pedagogue” was also a founder of Amherst College – he was an early president of the college’s Board of Trustees.

In 1798, the 1778 Yale  grad moved back to New Haven with his family — he and his wife Rebecca Greenleaf would raise seven children — to begin his dictionary.  Having made a fortune from his publishing ventures, Webster could afford to follow his heart.  The first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828.  He would continue working on revisions until the day he died.  In contrast to his predecessor, the renowned British wordsmith, Samuel Johnson, who famously opined, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,”  Webster loved compiling and defining words more than just about anything else.  This obsession, which  was instrumental in helping a high-strung genius live an amazingly vibrant life, ended up giving America a language of its own.

Here’s a brief overview of Webster’s life that I wrote for the LA Times on the occasion of the lexicographer’s 250th birthday:

Click here to download the article in PDF format.

The biography was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), on April 14, 2011 (on this date in 1828, Noah Webster copyrighted the first edition of his American Dictionary).

I look forward to meeting you during my “American Language Book Tour.”    Venues confirmed:

Williamstown House of Local History — Williamstown, MA — September 19, 2010

St Louis Mercantile Library — St. Louis, MO — December 1, 2010

Yale University — New Haven, CT (by invitation only) — March 24, 2011

Albany Institute of History and Art — Albany, NY — April 3, 2011

Amherst College — Amherst, MA — April 4, 2011

Wellesley College — Wellesley, MA — April 13, 2011

The Boston Athenaeum — Boston, MA — April 14, 2011

Harvard Club of Boston — Boston, MA — April 15, 2011

American Antiquarian Society — Worcester, MA — April 19, 2011

CT Historical Society (co-sponsored by Noah Webster House)  – Hartford, CT – April, 20, 2011

New Haven Museum — New Haven, CT — April 21, 2011

Brookline Booksmith — Brookline, MA — April 22, 2011

The Mercantile Library — Cincinnati, OH — April 25, 2011 (Founders Day — 1835 Lecture)

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia — Philadelphia, PA — April 27, 2011 

Lilly Library — Bloomington, Indiana — May 2, 2011

The New York Public Library (42nd St) — New York, NY — May 3, 2011

The Westfield Athenaeum — Westfield, MA — May, 4, 2011

The Enoch Pratt Library — Baltimore, MD — May 11, 2011

University Club of Chicago — Chicago, IL — May 16, 2011

Yale Club of Chicago — Chicago, IL — May 17, 2011

Newberry Library — Chicago, IL — May 17, 2011

New England Historical and Genealogical Society – Boston, MA — May 18, 2011

Yale Club of Boston — Boston, MA — May, 24, 2011

George Washington’s Mt. Vernon Estate — Mt. Vernon, VA (by invitation only) — May 31, 2011

Library of Congress — Washington, DC — June 2, 2011

Piccolo Spoleto Literary Festival — Charleston, SC — June 4, 2011

Independence Museum — Exeter, NH –June 22, 2011

Redwood Library — Newport, RI — June 30, 2011

Newton Free Library — Newton, MA — July 5, 2011

NewBridge on the Charles — Dedham, MA — July 13, 2011

Saint Leo University — Saint Leo, FL — September 15, 2011 — (Constitution Day Speaker)

Salem Athenaeum — Salem, MA — September 27, 2011

New York Society Library — New York, NY — October 19, 2011

Oliver Wolcott Library — Litchfield, CT — October, 20, 2011

Society of Colonial Wars — Boston, MA — November 17, 2011

University of Mary Washington (Great Lives Series) — Fredericksburg, VA — February 2, 2012

Harvard Bookstore — Cambridge, MA — March 8, 2012

Mid-Manhattan Library — New York, NY — March 28, 2012 (rescheduled for August 27, 2012)

Club of Odd Volumes — Boston, MA — April 18, 2012
MORE PRAISE FOR THE FORGOTTEN FOUNDING FATHER:

 ”Noah Webster forged American nationalism by creating an American
language with his best-selling spelling-book and monumental
dictionary.  Joshua Kendall tells the story of his eventful life with
narrative charm and psychological insight, exposing Webster’s faults
and fights as well as his virtues and influence.  Kendall enables the
reader to place Webster in the context of both early republican
political life and the development of lexicography.”
 

 Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848


“As an Englishman I was not aware of Noah Webster other than as the compiler of America’s first dictionary; as a new American, I find my compatriots equally unaware!  So I was delighted to learn about the life that he led in Joshua Kendall’s The Forgotten Founding Father. From his education at Yale and friendships formed with the dignitaries of the American Revolution – Washington and Franklin among them – to his speller for children, his pioneering journalism, and his passionate, unwavering belief in the unity and progress of the American republic, his biography offers a fascinating window on the formative years of the United States as a nation. An absorbing and instructive work!”

 
Nigel Hamilton, New York Times bestselling author of JFK: Reckless Youth and Bill Clinton: An American Journey
 
“Noah Webster was quintessentially American–rugged, tenacious, confident, independent, and tremendously competitive. Joshua Kendall’s masterly biography shows just how these characteristics surfaced not only in Webster’s
life but also in his books. This is a superb contribution to our understanding of America’s greatest lexicographer.”
 
Bryan Garner, author, Garner’s Modern American Usage & editor, Black’s Law Dictionary
 
“Everyone knows Webster’s dictionary, but how many know Webster?
Kendall’s portrait of America’s first great lexicographer is also the
portrait of a scholar, an educator, a businessman, a politician, and a
patriot, one who shaped the American language as he shaped the American
nation.  This lively biography — the most thoroughly researched and
compellingly readable ever written – reveals Webster in all his complexity.”

Jack Lynch, author of  The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English From Shakespeare to South Park

“Joshua Kendall’s biography of Noah Webster paints a rich portrait of an American original, a man who was determined to shape a new American culture as an educator, political advocate, newspaper publisher, and pathbreaking lexicographer.  So obsessive that he counted the houses in every town he visited, Webster’s difficult personality was uniquely suited to creating a seminal dictionary almost entirely by himself.”

David O. Stewart, author of Summer of 1787

“The author’s engaging, effective prose, tinged with wit and humor, makes every line of the biography so informative and fascinating that, like Webster, he too deserves to be called a remarkably talented wordsmith.”

 Howard R. Lamar, former president of Yale University

“In this mesmerizing tale of a man whose name is a household word but whose life has been sadly neglected by history, Joshua Kendall single-handily rescues the least-known founder of American politics and culture and gives him his long overdue place of importance.  The Forgotten Founding Father makes for fascinating and absorbing reading and is an eloquent paean for Noah Webster.”

James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power


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