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A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States Paperback – February 4, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Nativist, xenophobe, and anti-immigration pamphleteer, Samuel Morse was known in his day for more than the telegraphic code that bears his name--one of the many things we learn from the prizewinning historian Jill Lepore in this vivid study of language and linguistic politics in the early American republic. Morse "never gave up his hatred of immigrants," Lepore writes, but all the same nursed hopes that his dot-and-dash alphabet would somehow contribute to world peace. Just so, Noah Webster, of dictionary fame and also anti-immigration, sought to lay down rules for a language that would "build Americans' fragile sense of national belonging," while Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet sought to provide a language for the deaf, and Sequoyah a syllabary for the Cherokee people that would enable them to participate as citizens in the larger society. Language is power, these reformers and inventors knew. Lepore's highly readable study of language and its political uses in 18th and 19th century America gives us a new context in which to consider language-reform movements today as well as a window into the American past. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (February 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375704086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375704086
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #169,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995. Her first book, "The Name of War," won the Bancroft Prize; her 2005 book, "New York Burning," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008 she published "Blindspot," a mock eighteenth-century novel, jointly written with Jane Kamensky. Lepore's most recent book, "The Whites of Their Eyes," is a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on March 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
How much do the words you think in make you the way you are? How much do they form your nation? Can mere language change society? Plenty of people have thought so, and in _A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States_ (Knopf) by Jill Lepore, we look at seven men from the nineteenth century US who, for diverse reasons, thought that changes in language could shape their national culture and society. Some of the men are well known, others obscure, and all of them wanted to forge or use language to favor their views. Lepore has given us pocket biographies of each, and while it may not be that there are enough similarities in their lives and endeavors to give an overarching theme to the book, Lepore is a fine writer whose clearly told stories form an impressive look at surprising aspects of language. Here are the men she profiles who wanted to use language for more than just communication.
Noah Webster was concerned that American dialects of English would split society into factions, but he wanted to split American linguistically from Britain by a language that looked different, as in "There iz no alternativ." William Thornton wanted not a distinct American alphabet, but a universal one that would have one letter for every possible sound the human voice could make in any language to bring the world together. Sequoyah was a Cherokee Indian who aimed for separation from American culture by means of the Cherokee language, which with great success he rendered into a written version adopted by many of his tribe. Thomas Gallaudet insisted sign language was the universal language, not only for deaf people but for all.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Steve S. on January 18, 2004
Format: Paperback
I'll get the complaints out of the way first: Though already slim, I found this book to be slightly padded and repetitive. Also, Lepore's writing is somewhat hampered by a dissertation style. However, she has the makings of a first-rate pop-history writer like Simon Winchester, and is well on her way. The first chapter (on Webster) is the weakest because Lepore fails to forge a satisfying narrative from his life, but every chapter after it is full of interesting ideas and stories. She frequently shows how their lives and ideas intersected in private life and the public arena.
What most interested me was what fascinates me most about the 19th century: it feels like a time of great curiosity and discovery and tinkering. People seem to have had a sense that the whole world could be re-ordered and reformed.
If you're interested in language, Lepore explores just about every interesting aspect of the topic, and, refreshingly, her view of American history is a genuine cross-section, including natives and slaves. A very worthy read.
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