Oct 162017
 

Today is the birthday (1758) of Noah Webster Jr., whose name is synonymous with “dictionary” in the United States, and who was a significant force both in primary education and in the development of what is now called American English. Many of the spellings now current in the US came from Webster’s crusade to simplify the complexities of British orthography, and also to distance the US from British habits.

Webster was born in the Western Division of Hartford (which became West Hartford, Connecticut), to an established family. His father Noah Sr. (1722–1813) was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother Mercy (Steele) Webster (1727–1794) was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. His father was primarily a farmer, though he was also deacon of the local Congregational church, captain of the town’s militia, and a founder of a local book society (a precursor to the public library). After US independence, he was appointed a justice of the peace.

Webster’s father never attended college, but he was intellectually curious and prized education. Webster’s mother spent long hours teaching her children spelling, mathematics, and music. At age 6, Webster began attending a dilapidated one-room primary school built by West Hartford’s Ecclesiastical Society. Years later, he described the teachers as the “dregs of humanity” and complained that the instruction was mainly in religion. Webster’s experiences there motivated him to improve the educational experience of future generations.

At age 14, his church pastor began tutoring him in Latin and Greek to prepare him for entering Yale College. Webster enrolled at Yale just before his 16th birthday, studying during his senior year with Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president. His 4 years at Yale overlapped the American Revolutionary War, and Webster served in the Connecticut Militia. His father had mortgaged the farm to send Webster to Yale, but he was now on his own and had nothing more to do with his family.

Webster lacked career plans after graduating from Yale in 1778, later writing that a liberal arts education “disqualifies a man for business.” He taught school briefly in Glastonbury, but the working conditions were harsh and the pay low. He quit to study law. While studying law under future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, Webster also taught full-time in Hartford—which was grueling, and ultimately impossible to continue. He stopped studying law for a year and lapsed into a depression. But eventually he found another practicing attorney to tutor him. He completed his studies and passed the bar examination in 1781. He could not find work as a lawyer, but after receiving a master’s degree from Yale by giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class, he opened a small private school in western Connecticut that was a success. Nevertheless, he soon closed it and left town, probably because of a failed romance.

Turning to literary work as a way to overcome his losses and channel his ambitions, he began writing a series of well-received articles for a prominent New England newspaper justifying and praising the Revolution and arguing that the separation from Britain had to be permanent. He then founded a private school catering to wealthy parents in Goshen, New York and, by 1785, he had written his Speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools. Proceeds from continuing sales of the popular “Blue-Backed Speller” enabled Webster to spend many years working on his dictionary.

Webster saw his Speller and Dictionary as providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism. As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They could be overcrowded, with up to 70 children of all ages crammed into one-room schoolhouses. They had poor, underpaid staff, no desks, and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. Webster thought that US students should learn from US books, so he began writing the three-volume compendium A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The work consisted of a Speller (published in 1783), a Grammar (published in 1784), and a Reader (published in 1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely “American” approach to training children. His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamour of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation. Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” This meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.

The Speller was arranged so that it was easy to teach to students, and it progressed by age. From his own experiences as a teacher, Webster thought that the Speller should be simple and give an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. He believed that students learned most readily when he broke a complex problem into its component parts and had each pupil master one part before moving to the next. It has been argued that Webster anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, although his inspiration on the matter came from Rousseau. Webster argued that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a 3 year old how to read, but start at age 5. He organized his Speller accordingly, beginning with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.

The Speller was originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. Most people called it the “Blue-Backed Speller” because of its blue cover and, for the next 100 years, Webster’s book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time; by 1837, it had sold 15 million copies, and 60 million by 1890—reaching the majority of young students in the nation’s first century. Its royalty of a half-cent per copy was enough to sustain Webster in his other projects. It also helped create the popular contests known as spelling bees.

Webster’s Speller was entirely secular by design, undoubtedly based on his dissatisfaction with his own schooling. There was no mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events. “Let sacred things be appropriated for sacred purposes,” he wrote. He was intensely religious, especially later in life, but sacred and secular were different realms for him.

Webster’s educational agenda concerned as much the creation of a unified American national culture that would stave off the decline of republican virtues and solidarity, as instilling good grammar and spelling. Following theorists such as Maupertuis, Michaelis, and Herder, Webster believed that a nation’s linguistic forms, and the thoughts correlated with them, shaped individuals’ behavior. Thus, the etymological clarification and reform of American English promised to improve citizens’ manners and thereby preserve republican purity and social stability. Lofty ideals !!

In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language. It took 26 years to complete. Webster hoped to standardize US speech, since citizens in different parts of the country used different dialects and languages. Consequently they spelled, pronounced, and used English words differently.

Webster completed his dictionary during a year abroad in January 1825 in a boarding house in Cambridge in England. The book contained 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster preferred spellings that matched pronunciation. The spellings that now are characteristic of American English did not originate with Webster, but he made them standard and his dictionary became the general arbiter in the US. For example, the middle of something could be the “center” or “centre” in English; Webster made the former his preferred spelling because it emphasized pronunciation over etymology (which he considered pedantically British). He was able to make headway by replacing /-our/ with /-or/ (e.g. “color” over “colour”) and eliminating some double consonants (e.g. “traveled” for “travelled”); but he found little success with more radical changes (e.g. “tung” for “tongue”); and no luck with getting rid of silent letters whatsoever.   He once complained:

There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.

Though it now has an honored place in the history of American English, Webster’s first dictionary sold only 2,500 copies. He was forced to mortgage his home to develop a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt. The work was so poorly received at first because Webster, as was his wont in everyday life, managed to annoy everyone. Culturally conservative Jeffersonian Federalists (whom he allied with much of the time) denounced the work as radical—too inclusive in its lexicon and even bordering on vulgar, while his old foes, the Republicans, attacked the man, labeling him mad for such an undertaking. Even before he published the dictionary they called him “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” and “a deceitful newsmonger … Pedagogue and Quack.” But even Federalist rivals called him “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a great fool, and a barefaced liar,” “a spiteful viper,” and “a maniacal pedant.” He certainly knew how to get up people’s noses.

On the other side of the coin, Emily Dickinson saw the 1844 Webster’s as essential reading. She once commented that the “Lexicon” was her “only companion” for years. As it happens, Webster was one of the founders of Amherst college along with Dickinson’s grandfather, and she went to college with Webster’s granddaughter.  Webster’s dictionaries helped redefine US national identity in an era of extreme cultural flexibility. Webster himself saw the dictionaries as a nationalizing device to separate the US from Britain, calling his project a “federal language” endeavor, with competing forces towards regularity on the one hand and innovation on the other.

American Cookery The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables etc (1796) by Amelia Simmons is a good source for a recipe for today’s anniversary because it was the first cookbook published in the US that deals with specifically American cooking, and because it was published in Hartford, Connecticut, Webster’s home town. Webster kept a daily diary but he does not mention food much. However, he does give this entry:

1784, September 29. Rode to West Division with Mrs. Fish to buy peaches. Returned and had dinner at Mr. Pratt’s. We ate Sea-Turtle.

I don’t know how the turtle was cooked, nor do I want to cook one myself, but here’s a recipe from Simmons.

To Dress a Turtle.

Fill a boiler or kettle, with a quantity of water sufficient to scald the callapach and Callapee, the fins, &c. and about 9 o’clock hang up your Turtle by the hind fins, cut of the head and save the blood, take a sharp pointed knife and separate the callapach from the callapee, or the back from the belly part, down to the shoulders, so as to come at the entrails which take out, and clean them, as you would those of any other animal, and throw them into a tub of clean water, taking great care not to break the gall, but to cut it off from the liver and throw it away, then separate each distinctly and put the guts into another vessel, open them with a small pen-knife end to end, wash them clean, and draw them through a woolen cloth, in warm water, to clear away the slime and then put them in clean cold water till they are used with the other part of the entrails, which must be cut up small to be mixed in the baking dishes with the meat; this done, separate the back and belly pieces, entirely cutting away the fore fins by the upper joint, which scald; peal off the loose skin and cut them into small pieces, laying them by themselves, either in another vessel, or on the table, ready to be seasoned; then cut off the meat from the belly part, and clean the back from the lungs, kidneys, &c. and that meat cut into pieces as small as a walnut, laying it likewise by itself; after this you are to scald the back, and belly pieces, pulling off the shell from the back, and the yellow skin from the belly, when all will be white and clean, and with the kitchen cleaver cut those up likewise into pieces about the bigness or breadth of a card; put those pieces into clean cold water, wash them and place them in a heap on the table, so that each part may lay by itself; the meat being thus prepared and laid separate for seasoning; mix two third parts of salt or rather more, and one third part of cyanne pepper, black pepper, and a nutmeg, and mace pounded fine, and mixt all together; the quantity, to be proportioned to the size of the Turtle, so that in each dish there may be about three spoonfuls of seasoning to every twelve pound of meat; your meat being thus seasoned, get some sweet herbs, such as thyme, savory, &c. let them be dryed an rub’d fine, and having provided some deep dishes to bake it in, which should be of the common brown ware, put in the coarsest part of the meat, put a quarter pound of butter at the bottom of each dish, and then put some of each of the several parcels of meat, so that the dishes may be all alike and have equal portions of the different parts of the Turtle, and between each laying of meat strew a little of the mixture of sweet herbs, fill your dishes within an inch an half, or two inches of the top; boil the blood of the Turtle, and put into it, then lay on forcemeat balls made of veal, highly seasoned with the same seasoning as the Turtle; put in each dish a gill of Madeira Wine, and as much water as it will conveniently hold, then break over it five or six eggs to keep the meat from scorching at the top, and over that shake a handful of shread parsley, to make it look green, when done put your dishes into an oven made hot enough to bake bread, and in an hour and half, or two hours (according to the size of the dishes) it will be sufficiently done.

Apr 252016
 

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Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, was first published on this date in 1719. The first edition credited the work’s protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author, leading many readers to believe he was a real person, and the book a travelogue of true incidents. It was originally published under the title The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

The work is epistolary, confessional, and didactic in form, presented as an autobiography of the title character (whose birth name is Robinson Kreutznaer)—a castaway who spends thirty years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad, encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers, before ultimately being rescued. You can find the complete text here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/521/521-h/521-h.htm

The story is usually conjectured to have been based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived for four years with his pet dog on a pacific island called “Más a Tierra”, now part of Chile, which was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966, but various other literary sources have also been suggested. I’d be inclined to say it is “inspired by” these stories rather than “based on” since most of the events in Robinson Crusoe (and also the numerous ruminations) are of Defoe’s devising.

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Robinson Crusoe was well received in the literary world and is often credited as marking the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. This is an overstatement, but the book was an important milestone in the rise of the novel in the 18th century, paving the way for numerous classics, such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Before the end of 1719, the book had already run through four editions, and it has gone on to become one of the most widely published books in history, spawning numerous sequels and adaptations for stage, film, and television.

I wouldn’t imagine the full text is read much any more, not least because people don’t read much of anything these days.  I’ve just finished a series of lessons with 4th-year high school students (18 year olds) in English classes in Italy. They don’t read more than excerpts, which is just as well.  Even for native speakers the book is a challenge. There are lengthy passages of short journal entries that move the narrative along, but are heavy weather for modern readers.  As a boy I read an abridged version (considerably amended) that gave the gist only. I expect that nowadays people know a few bits of the tale and that’s it.

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Here’s a couple of representative extracts from the initial chapters of the book when Crusoe has first arrived, shipwrecked, and has to make plans for a lengthy stay. His ship has foundered near shore so that in a brief lull in the weather he is able to get to it and rescue some items:

I had been now thirteen days on shore, and had been eleven times on board the ship, in which time I had brought away all that one pair of hands could well be supposed capable to bring; though I believe verily, had the calm weather held, I should have brought away the whole ship, piece by piece.  But preparing the twelfth time to go on board, I found the wind began to rise: however, at low water I went on board, and though I thought I had rummaged the cabin so effectually that nothing more could be found, yet I discovered a locker with drawers in it, in one of which I found two or three razors, and one pair of large scissors, with some ten or a dozen of good knives and forks: in another I found about thirty-six pounds value in money—some European coin, some Brazil, some pieces of eight, some gold, and some silver.

I smiled to myself at the sight of this money: “O drug!” said I, aloud, “what art thou good for?  Thou art not worth to me—no, not the taking off the ground; one of those knives is worth all this heap; I have no manner of use for thee—e’en remain where thou art, and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saying.”  However, upon second thoughts I took it away . . .

This last piece is typical of Defoe’s examination of the nature of civilized life – the major theme of the book.  Later there is this tabulation made by Crusoe concerning the good and bad side of his situation:

Evil Good
I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope of recovery. But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship’s company were.
I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all the world, to be miserable. But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew, to be spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition.
I am divided from mankind—a solitaire; one banished from human society. But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance.
I have no clothes to cover me.

 

But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them.

 

I am without any defence, or means to resist any violence of man or beast. But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been shipwrecked there?
I have no soul to speak to or relieve me. But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the shore, that I have got out as many necessary things as will either supply my wants or enable me to supply myself, even as long as I live.

 

Even without being shipwrecked, such a tabulation assessing one’s circumstances can be a useful exercise.  I’ve done it myself on several occasions with good effect.

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I could go on at length about the themes of Robinson Crusoe as dozens of critics have done, but I’ll spare you. Read it yourself. It’s a complex, multi-layered work reflecting (not surprisingly) Defoe’s Puritan background, and the social norms of 18th-century England, yet nuanced in its general conclusions about society. For example, Crusoe is repelled by the cannibals he encounters, considering cannibalism to be an absolute moral wrong. But he does not hold the cannibals personally responsible for their actions, attributing their behavior to their own cultural history and habits – remarkably broad minded for the time.

Crusoe makes a valiant effort to replicate the cooking norms of the time in England. He grows crops, and eventually builds an oven which he can use to bake bread although he lacks yeast.  If Defoe had been more knowledgeable about wild yeasts he might have included a discourse on gathering and using them. There’s also this passage early on:

June 16.—Going down to the seaside, I found a large tortoise or turtle.  This was the first I had seen, which, it seems, was only my misfortune, not any defect of the place, or scarcity; for had I happened to be on the other side of the island, I might have had hundreds of them every day, as I found afterwards; but perhaps had paid dear enough for them.

June 17.—I spent in cooking the turtle.  I found in her three-score eggs; and her flesh was to me, at that time, the most savoury and pleasant that ever I tasted in my life, having had no flesh, but of goats and fowls, since I landed in this horrid place.

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The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined by John Mollard is a good resource for 18th century recipes. In it I found this recipe for calipee, the fatty, gelatinous belly meat of the turtle that was much prized at one time. I certainly don’t advocate eating turtle, but the recipe is a period piece reflecting the tastes of Defoe’s time. I’ve seen turtle on the menu in New Orleans, and live turtles (small) are a commonplace of food markets in China. Not my thing.

Callipee.

Take a quarter of the under part of a turtle of sixty pounds weight, and scald it, and when done, take the shoulder-bone out and fill the cavity with a good high-seasoned forcemeat made with the lean of the turtle; put it into a stewpan, and add a pint of madeira wine, cayenne pepper, salt, lemon juice, a clove of garlick, a little mace, a few cloves and allspice tied in a bag, a bunch of sweet herbs, some whole onions, and three quarts of good beef stock. Stew gently till three parts done; then take the turtle and put it into another stewpan, with some of the entrails boiled and some egg balls; add a little thickening of flour and butter to the liquor, let it boil, and strain it to the turtle, &c. then stew it till tender, and the liquor almost reduced to a glaize. Serve it up in a deep dish, pasted round as a callipash, ornamented and baked.

N.B. I think the above mode of serving it up in a dish the best, as it frequently happens that the shell of the callipee is not properly baked.