Friday, October 17, 2008

New England Celebrates Noah Webster 250th

Engraving of Noah Webster 
John Tallis & Company, 1834
(based on the portrait by S. F. B 
Morse [1823]:Mead Art 
Museum, Amherst College)

Given all the attention on next year's 250th-anniversary celebrations here in Amherst, it would be easy to forget that 2008 includes another such occasion: the birth of Noah Webster (1758-1843) on October 16.  And when that anniversary is marked in the press elsewhere, there is often scant mention of Webster's Amherst connection.

West Hartford, as Webster's birthplace, justifiably asserts its ownership, and has undertaken a substantial celebratory campaign. Yale University, where Webster studied and in whose vicinity he spent the last decades of his life, has scheduled at least a day of special and varied events (topics include not just the predictable dictionaries, but modern political campaigns and polling techniques).

Amherst institutions are doing what they can to ensure balance.  Special Collections at both Amherst College and the Jones Library have created exhibits that draw upon their rich holdings (and Amherst, like Yale, is throwing a little birthday party).

Webster spent only a decade of his life in Amherst (1812-22), and the achievements for which he is best known, such as his grammar, spelling books, and dictionary, were begun or completed in other locales.  Still, Webster's Amherst career was significant in its own right, for the history of both the town and the wider world. It was while living in Amherst that he worked on An American Dictionary of the English Language (completed in 1825, published in 1828). He played a major role in the creation of the Amherst Academy as well as Amherst College.  And not only was "Squire Webster" active in local and state politics. He was also a farmer and an agricultural innovator renowned for his orchards.  When the Town of Amherst built a new parking garage to the north of Webster's (no longer extant) residence on Main St. a decade ago, archaeological surveys revealed some pottery sherds dating from the early nineteenth century as well as the remains of a well. The latter seemed to correspond roughly to accounts claiming that it had been uncovered in the course of renovations more than half a century ago, but the identification had to remain speculative at best.

A final footnote:  Given that Webster fought so hard to shape and amend US copyright legislation, it is ironic that his name has become a mere merchandising label, which anyone can apply casually to any dictionary.   Name Wire blog includes a poem in Webster's honor:
October 13, 2008

An Ode to Noah Webster - From Brand Name to Genericide Victim

Oh noble Noah, you who stripped the u
From color and the k from music and who
Taught a nation how to spell and gave
Us a lexicon of the language of the brave
Rejoice! For Yankees all still celebrate
Your dictionary and your birth upon this date.
as well as this reflection on intellectual property:
the Merriam company, which bought the rights to Noah Webster’s dictionary after his death, lost control of both the “Webster’s” name and the original 1828 text.
As a result, several other publishers also produce “Webster’s” dictionaries and Merriam-Webster has to work hard to establish its claim to being the real Webster’s.

That may just make Noah Webster America’s first victim of genericide.

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