What ties Americans to one another? What unifies a nation of citizens with different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds? These were the dilemmas faced by Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they sought ways to bind the newly United States together. In A is for American, award-winning historian Jill Lepore portrays seven men who turned to language to help shape a new nation’s character and boundaries. From Noah Webster’s attempts to standardize American spelling, to Alexander Graham Bell’s use of “Visible Speech” to help teach the deaf to talk, to Sequoyah’s development of a Cherokee syllabary as a means of preserving his people’s independence, these stories form a compelling portrait of a developing nation’s struggles. Lepore brilliantly explores the personalities, work, and influence of these figures, seven men driven by radically different aims and temperaments. Through these superbly told stories, she chronicles the challenges faced by a young country trying to unify its diverse people.
In her latest effort, historian Lepore (winner of the Bancroft Prize for The Name of War) explores the significant and occasionally unsettling ways language was used to define national character and boundaries in the early American republic. Focusing on seven men Noah Webster, Samuel F.B. Morse, William Thornton, Sequoyah, Thomas Gallaudet, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima and Alexander Graham Bell Lepore offers a scholarly analysis of how they devised alphabets, syllabaries, codes and signs "to build national ties or to break them down." The complex underlying stories the personal flaws or the admirable or questionable intentions that fueled these icons' missions shed new light on history we thought we knew. Webster, for instance, wanted to reform spelling to distance Americans from their British origins; Thornton sought a universal alphabet; and Morse was after a telegraphic code that could connect the world's peoples. Some of the accounts have provocative twists, too, such as the story of Sequoyah's development of the Cherokee alphabet, and that of freed slave Abd al-Rahman's literacy in Arabic, which helped him gain passage back to Africa. "Their stories, and the letters and other characters with which [these men] communicated," Lepore argues, "trace the tension in the United States between nationalism, often fueled by nativist prejudices, and universalism, inspired by both evangelism and the Enlightenment." Lepore concludes with a brief analysis of the philosophies behind the Internet, which seeks to make one neighborhood of the entire globe. Although sometimes academic in tone, this study will find a general audience appreciative of its new perspectives on America's past and its valuable insights into the dynamics at work in society today. Illus.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 03, 2003
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Excerpt from A Is for American by Jill Lepore
An American Language
On July 23, 1788, the people of New York spilled out onto the streets of the city, streets that had been specially swept and watered the night before. In the summer sun, five thousand New Yorkers formed a procession a mile and a half long, while thousands more watched from sidewalks, windows, doorways, and rooftops. The Federal Procession was meant both to stir and to display the people's passions
in support of the Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, already ratified by ten out of the thirteen states, and now being debated at New York's ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, marchers expressed their support for the Constitution with a splash of panache and a fair bit of wit. A contingent of confectioners carried a ten-foot-long "federal cake," one foot for each state that had ratified. Thirty-one skinners, breeches makers, and glovers wore "buckskin waistcoasts, faced with blue silk, breeches, gloves, and stockings, with a buck's tail in their hats," and waved a standard bearing the motto "Americans, encourage your own manufactures." The butchers' stage carried a thousand-pound ox and a flag reading, "Skin me well, dress me neat, and send me aboard the federal fleet." Even the solitary equine veterinarian was dressed in "an elegant half shirt, with a painted horse on his breast," over which was written, "Federal Horse Doctor." From early morning until nearly dusk, a parade of trumpeters, artillery pieces, mounted horses, floats, and citizens from physicians to upholsterers inched its way down Broadway, through Hanover Square, and, still more slowly, back again. At the end of it all, Noah Webster, who marched with the rest, wearily summed it up in his diary: "Very brilliant, but fatiguing."
Webster trudged along the streets of New York that day as a member of the New York Philological Society, "whose flag & uniform black dress," he noted with pride, "made a very respectable figure." The society, founded in March 1788, "for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue," had spent much of July preparing for the grand procession, where, dressed in black, the philologists marched in a division with other pen-pushers-lawyers, college students, merchants, and traders. Perhaps they hoped to keep their distance from more muscular marchers whose displays they could not hope to rival. But if the philologists could not bear the weight of a federal cake or pull a half-ton ox, they did manage to carry four symbolic props: a flag ("embellished with the Genius of America, crowned with a wreath of 13 plumes, ten of them starred, representing the ten States which have ratified the Constitution. Her right hand pointing to the Philological Society, and in her left, a standard, with a pendant, inscribed with the word, CONSTITUTION"); a copy of "Mr. Horne Tooke's treatise on language" (an influential linguistic tract); a scroll "containing the principles of a Federal language" (the text of which unfortunately has not survived); and an extraordinarily elaborate coat of arms. Designed in part by Webster himself, the coat of arms depicted three tongues; a chevron; an eye over a pyramid inscribed with Gothic, Hebrew, and Greek letters; a crest and key; and a shield ornamented with oak and flax, supported, on one side, by Hermes with a wand and, on the other, by Cadmus in a purple robe (holding, in his other hand, papyrus covered by Phoenician characters).2
In the aftermath of the bloody War for Independence, New York's philologists hoped that peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt, if not a federal cake, a federal, national language. Winning the war had gained the former colonies their political independence from Britain, ratifying the Constitution would unify the states under a national government, but what would hold ordinary Americans together? Inhabitants of the thirteen "united" states were both too much like the English and not enough like one another. Americans in the 1780s shared very little by way of heritage, custom, and manners, and what little they did share, they shared with England. What, then, made them American? Noah Webster and his supporters believed that Americans needed, first, a national government and, second, a national language.
That any group of people form a "nation" is a kind of fiction, an act of imagination. A common ethnicity, heritage, and culture make this act of imagination a bit less strenuous, and a common language can make it a great deal easier. As early as the seventh century Isidore of Seville observed: "Nations have arisen from tongues, not tongues from nations." Yet national