on September 12, 1998
I purchased this book while in London recently under its British title THE SURGEON OF CROWTHORNE. Apparently for American readers, the publishers felt it necessary to "tart up" the title to THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN. Regardless, Simon Winchester's story between the covers is splendidly told, without sensationalising even the most horrific details, revealed matter of factly well into the book. The story is that of Dr. Minor - an American Civil War surgeon - who went mad amid the horrors of "The Wilderness." Pursued by his nightly demons, he later wound up in grim South London where he shot dead a totally innocent man. Sent to Broadmoor - a sprawling lunatic asylum near London - he became one of the most valuable contributors to the compilation of the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester recounts - correcting but not spoiling a wonderful story - the meeting between the OED's legendary James Murray and his reclusive contributor. While ultimately Dr Minor's story is a tragic one - not the least for his hapless victim - it is also a tribute to the persistence of the human mind. Cleverly presented with appropriate OED citings, this book is not to be missed for anyone interested in words. If you'll excuse the expression, this is the "definitive" work.
on September 14, 2000
James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, corresponded with Dr. W.C. Minor for many years; Dr. Minor was one of the most indefatigable contributors to the OED. Minor was committed to an Broadmoor asylum in 1872, having murdered an innocent man. Nowadays we would call him a paranoid schizophrenic; in those days they just called him insane.
In the asylum he had plenty of time to locate and submit thousands of usage slips to the OED, and thus began his relationship with Murray. It is an extraordinary relationship, and Winchester wrings every last drop of melodrama from it--to the point of irritating the reader.
For example, for many years there was a standard tale about the first meeting of Murray and Minor, in which Murray only finds out when he actually arrives at Broadmoor that Dr. Minor is not on the staff, but is an inmate. Winchester opens the book with the phrase "Popular myth has it that . . . " and proceeds to tell the tale; it is an engaging story, and he tells it well. However, halfway through the book he points out that it is false, and has been known to be so for several years. He does eventually give the true version of events, but dangling the attractive lie in front of the reader like this while delaying the less exciting truth is a sign of his weakness for sensationalism.
Another example (p. 195 in the paperback edition): after describing a particular gruesome episode of his madness, Winchester speculates for a whole page about a possible cause for which there is not even a hint of evidence--that Minor had an affair with the wife of the man he murdered. Winchester freely admits this is a complete fabrication, but includes it as "legitimate speculation"; to me, it feels more like tabloid journalism.
There's more of the same, but that's enough examples; I think part of the problem is that there is simply not much material here to work with. The basic facts are few, and Winchester had to embroider and imagine. It must be said, though, that where he *does* relate factual information, as opposed to speculation, the book is fascinating. The story truly is remarkable, and despite the style is very much worth reading. It's just a pity that Winchester felt unable to let the story speak for itself.
For those who love words and reference books, this is a well-told yarn. Being the story of the relationship between one William Minor, a doctor and convicted lunatic suffering from paranoia, and James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, there is much more right with the book than wrong, but it does have some problems, primarily the lack of an index. Any book with so many names should have an index.
Secondly, one wishes to see and hear more -- the author refers to several interesting photographs: a formal farewell photo of Minor near the end of his life, returning to America after 37 years in England (all but one spent in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane); the last photo of Murray, a fortnight before his death, in the Scriptorium (where the OED was compiled) surrounded by his daughters and staff. It would have been nice to see these pictures. The author refers several times to Minor's handwriting and many times to his letters. It would have added to the story to see at least a few letters in full, and particularly to have seen a sample of Minor's writing. In addition, Winchester credits the motivation for the creation of the OED to an address by Richard Trench, in which Trench delineates seven ways that dictionaries of the time were deficient, but then states that "most of them are technical and should not concern us here"! I think people interested in this book *would* most likely be interested in these technical details. If nothing else, they should be put in a (foot)note.
Finally, although the tale is generally well told and an enjoyable read, the author occasionally hits a false note which a reader may find jarring; for instance, in describing Minor's post-trial delivery to the asylum, Winchester states that "the horses were sweating slightly as they hauled the four-wheel vehicle and its occupants up the low sandstone hill at the top of which stands Broadmoor itself." Oh really. Nice touch of drama, but disconcerting when so much else is related without imaginary flourishes. Similarly, Winchester conjectures that a hypothetical event may have led to Minor's autopeotomy, though there is no reason at all to believe such an event occurred.
Having listed these flaws, one is obligated also to acknowledge the author's successes. In addition to an engaging style in service to an interesting tale, there is a charming author's note, an acknowledgments section actually worth reading, and a touching dedication (fleshed out in the text) to G.M. -- George Merrett, Minor's murder victim, who left behind a pregnant wife with seven children and who rests in an unmarked grave.
I recommend the book. An example of fine historical writing, it humanizes a remarkable literary achievement.
But it needs an (in' dex)!!
on October 26, 1999
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, mainly for learning about some of the key people and events behind one of the greatest undertakings in the English language. A lot of us today take the existence of the dictionary for granted, not realizing how it evolved from its first incarnations, or exactly what kind of work went into its preparation. Simon Winchester does a great job tracing the history of the dictionary to give frame of reference to his main story. The details of Dr. Minor's and James Murray's histories have been carefully researched and presented so as to thoroughly engage the reader. The only drawback I found is, despite the book's applaudable effort to dispel the myths surrounding Dr. Minor's involvement in the making of the OED, sometimes the writing style inadvertently falls into this same trap of myth-making. The words "lunatic" and "madman" are often used in the sensationalized sense the Victorians used them, thereby unnecessarily judging and glamorizing Dr. Minor's mental illness. Also, the defining incident at Lambeth is written as a Victorian thriller, complete with gas lamps, "bone-chilling cold" and a figure lurking in dark narrow streets. This extra air of mystery was not needed, as the real events are more than compelling enough to make you want to read more. All in all, though, an absorbing tale.
on May 26, 1999
The subject of Winchester's book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the "Oxford English Dictionary," and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the "O.E.D." for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called "The Dictionary," and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. (Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.) There is a serious problem with Winchester's book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his "Washington Post" review of "The Professor and the Madman": ". . . we're never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing." Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in "The Professor and the Madman." About Minor's death Winchester writes, incorrectly, "There were no obituaries." An obituary was published in 1921 in "Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920." From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies; that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863; that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth's in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth's to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer's name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man's name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor's clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York (on Governors Island) the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place; however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor's family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester's assumptions regarding Minor's life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor's legal situation as well as Minor's living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press accounts. Nunn not only corresponded and met with Minor and his family but also visited Minor at Broadmoor. According to the Nunn letters, the family did not want Minor returned to an asylum in the U.S. They were satisfied to let him remain at Broadmoor. This information contradicts Winchester's indication that the family would have rejoiced at Minor's return. Nunn was surprised at the family's neglect of Minor and at their refusal, at one point, to send Minor any more money at Broadmoor. Nunn makes very clear that Minor's mail was heavily censored. This conflicts with Winchester's implication. Winchester makes a mystifying observation at the end of his book. He states that it was only at the completion of the "Oxford English Dictionary," in 1927, that Americans could say that the Dictionary "was now, at least partly, of their own making." From the very beginning Americans had the right to claim that the Dictionary was, to a significant extent, a creation of their own making. In Murray's first years of editing the "O.E.D.," fully one half of the 800 volunteer readers with whom he worked were American. James Murray felt that his most avid support came from the United States. He said, "...it is Americans upon whom I depend above all." He called Americans "the most reliable and trustworthy volunteers." In 1883 Murray wrote, "I truly believe that the future of English scholarship lies in the United States, where the language is studied with an enthusiasm unknown here and which will soon leave us far behind." "The Professor and the Madman" focuses on some of the same fascinating aspects of the collaboration of Murray and Minor that first inspired me to dramatize the story. It is important, however, to look beyond the surface of material Winchester presents as truth.
This is an extremely interesting story, so much so that you can see why anyone who heard about it would feel compelled to share it. But it's pretty slender and just barely worthy of a book length treatment. It seems like it would work better as a long magazine article or even as a novel and it will make a terrific movie.
In the latter portion of the 19th century, when James A. H. Murray faced the monumental task of compiling the initial version of the Oxford English Dictionary, he sent out a call for contributors. One of the most reliable and thorough volunteers proved to be Dr. William Chester Minor. But Minor resisted entreaties to visit the operations of the OED and to partake in the celebrations as volumes were completed. The reason for his reticence turned out to be his incarceration in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Minor, an American, was profoundly disturbed and a murderer to boot. After some disquieting years of service in a medical unit during the Civil War, he fixed upon an obsession that Irishmen wanted to kill him. His psychoses finally led him to gun down a complete stranger on a British street and he was institutionalized. He eventually spent about 50 of his over 80 years in some form of state care, where he was continually plagued by delusions that he was being spied upon and his food poisoned, and at one point he mutilated himself in a fashion which will have male readers cringing in horror. Meanwhile, his incarceration and his educational attainment made him uniquely well suited to contribute to the mammoth undertaking that was the OED.
Winchester does a creditable job of showing how two very different men were united by their love of language and learning. But, there are pretty obvious dramatic limitations to a true life story that involves one subject who's institutionalized and another who's writing a dictionary. Like I said, it's a pretty slim tale, but it is fascinating.
on November 18, 2005
Winchester writes up a melodrama, but this tale of Dr. William Minor who contributed numerous cited quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary while confined to an institution for the criminally insane is repetitive and short on hard facts. The latter is no surprise since Minor and his friend James Murray, the chief editor for decades on the 70 year project, are both long dead and left little in the way of personal correspondence or writings about their friendship. Much of the book is made up of Winchester's conjecture about what made Minor mad -- essentially horrible things in wartime -- and notes about his madness from his doctors and Minor himself. These are remarkably consistent for the more than 50 years since the the murder that his insanity sparked and, frankly, the lurid tales of having unspeakable sexual things done to him by people hiding under his floorboards at night sound more and more like filler the fourth and fifth time around. Winchester also has an orotund prose style that I suppose is intended to sound 19th century-ish, but in fact just sounds inflated. This book would have made a great long New Yorker article, but as a book it manages to be both overblown and thin.
on April 14, 2000
Simon Winchester answers this question with a story of violence, passion, tragedy, and sympathy. What more could you want in a story about a dictionary? I love books that shine with the author's enthusiasm for the subject. _The Professor and the Madman_ is just that type of book. Winchester obviously loves language and word origin. He gives the reader a look at etymology that is detailed enough to make you feel like a scholar, but selective enough so that you aren't overwhelmed with the rather dry science of language. But this is only the secondary plot. The main story, that of the obsession of the scholarly but homicidally deranged Dr. W.C. Minor, the focused and driven brilliance of Dr. James Murray, and the Oxford English Dictionary that brought them together is thrilling and tragic. Winchester does a great job of sharing with the reader the sadness and regret of Dr. Minor's amazing intellect trapped inside his deranged mind. If you've ever had a relative or friend succumb to Alzheimer's or another mental disease, you can understand the tragedy of such an intruguing person losing a battle with sanity. The story is so unique that it could only be true, and Winchester seems to have researched it thoroughly and accurately. I highly recommend it.
on February 18, 2000
Okay, you can get the long-winded plot summaries from the other reviews here, but you won't get this: The Professor and the Madman is a book for practically anybody. I have a personal interest in the history of the English language, so I found the book especially fascinating, but the truth is, it has something for everybody. It's not just a tale of some convicted murderer who contributed a lot of quotes to the Oxford English Dictionary. It's a romantic and tragic story, about two misunderstood men--one trapped in an asylum with a wish to contribute something to the world, the other a highly respected, yet humble and intelligent scholar. The connection between them--as well as their individual stories--is mysterious and beautiful. If you enjoy true stories of profound and personal undertakings, or if you just like a good book about unusual and interesting subjects, then buy this. It is not padded or drawn out, as some less patient reviewers would have you believe; it is entertaining, informative, and well worth your while.
on September 9, 1998
Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a charming and fascinating sidebar to one of the great works of scholarship in history. The Oxford English Dictionary took over 70 years to produce its first edition, and remains the definitive text on the historical development of the English language. It could not have been published without the unpaid efforts of over 800 dedicated volunteers - including Dr. William Minor, an American Army surgeon, incarcerated for almost 40 years in an English insane asylum for murdering a London brewery worker during an attack of a delusional paranoia that afflicted him his entire life.
The Professor and the Madman focuses on Minor's contribution to the work of Sir James Murray, the Scots genius who was the OED's first and greatest editor. Minor, when he wasn't being delusional, was a brilliant, assiduous reader, devoted to the English language and delighted to be part of the enormous project.
Winchester's book is a very quick read, and a delightful one. There are better books on Murray and the OED; but The Professor and the Madman gives a unique human insight into the enterprise, and the love of a language that inspired two such disparate individuals.
Anyone who loves to read and write will rightfully revere the OED and what it represents; also the enormous labors that went into its compilation. The Professor and the Madman is but a footnote to the history of that effort; but it is a lovely little footnote.