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A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States Hardcover – February 12, 2002
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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
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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. Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima was a noble African Muslim who was enslaved in Mississippi for 40 years, but whose ability to write Arabic enabled him to manipulate Northern and Southern supporters to get him and his family free. Samuel F.B. Morse was a failed painter whose elegant dots and dashes code was supposed to unite the world, but he supported slavery and saw the North use the telegraph to better advantage in the Civil War. Alexander Graham Bell everyone knows as the inventor of the telephone, but he never regarded it as important as his advocacy of Visible Speech, his father's notation of tongue, lip, and glottal positions that formed vowel and consonant sounds.
These seven men had individual and idiosyncratic struggles with alphabets, codes, signs, dictionaries, and syllabaries. Some had interaction with the others in intellectual debate, but the only time two of these seven were together was when Morse painted the elderly Webster. It is indeed surprising that these near contemporaries were so passionate about their particular and often contrasting view of what language had to accomplish, ranging from vengeful nationalism to dreamy universalism. As Lepore explains in a less-than-unifying epilogue, they were only participating in the paradox that American nationalism is based on universalist origins. The overlapping stories are themselves the show here, brightly written and fascinating. Lepore has used her own power of language to generate an academic work that tells seven diverse stories with vividness.
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.