Recollections Of Noah Webster by Edgar Wilson Nye

Story type: Essay Mr. Webster, no doubt, had the best command of language of any American author prior to our day. Those who have read his ponderous but rather disconnect …

Story type: Essay

Mr. Webster, no doubt, had the best command of language of any American author prior to our day. Those who have read his ponderous but rather disconnected romance known as “Websters Unabridged Dictionary, or How One Word Led on to Another.” will agree with me that he was smart. Noah never lacked for a word by which to express himself. He was a brainy man and a good speller.

It would ill become me at this late day to criticise Mr. Webster’s great work–a work that is now in almost every library, school-room and counting house in the land. It is a great book. I do believe that had Mr. Webster lived he would have been equally fair in his criticism of my books.

I hate to compare my own works with those of Mr. Webster, because it may seem egotistical in me to point out the good points in my literary labors; but I have often heard it said, and so do not state it solely upon my own responsibility, that Mr. Webster’s book does not retain the interest of the reader all the way through.

He has tried to introduce too many characters, and so we cannot follow them all the way through. It is a good book to pick up and while away an idle hour with, perhaps, but no one would cling to it at night till the fire went out, chained to the thrilling plot and the glowing career of its hero.

Therein consists the great difference between Mr. Webster and myself. A friend of mine at Sing Sing once wrote me that from the moment he got hold of my book, he never left his room till he finished it. He seemed chained to the spot, he said, and if you can’t believe a convict, who is entirely out of politics, who in the name of George Washington can you believe?

Mr. Webster was most assuredly a brilliant writer, and I have discovered in his later editions 118,000 words, no two of which are alike. This shows great fluency and versatility, it is true, but we need something else. The reader waits in vain to be thrilled by the author’s wonderful word painting. There is not a thrill in the whole tome. I had heard so much of Mr. Webster that when I read his book I confess I was disappointed. It is cold, methodical and dispassionate in the extreme.

As I said, however, it is a good book to pick up for the purpose of whiling away an idle moment, and no one should start out on a long journey without Mr. Webster’s tale in his pocket. It has broken the monotony of many a tedious trip for me.

Mr. Webster’s “Speller” was a work of less pretentions, perhaps, and yet it had an immense sale. Eight years ago this book had reached a sale of 40,000,000, and yet it had the same grave defect. It was disconnected, cold, prosy and dull. I read it for years, and at last became a close student of Mr. Webster’s style, yet I never found but one thing in this book, for which there seems to have been such a perfect stampede, that was even ordinarily interesting, and that was a little gem. It was so thrilling in its details, and so diametrically different from Mr. Webster’s style, that I have often wondered who he got to write it for him. It related to the discovery of a boy by an elderly gentleman, in the crotch of an ancestral apple tree, and the feeling of bitterness and animosity that sprung up at the time between the boy and the elderly gentleman.

Though I have been a close student of Mr. Webster for years, I am free to say, and I do not wish to do an injustice to a great man in doing so, that his ideas of literature and my own are entirely dissimilar. Possibly his book has had a little larger sale than mine, but that makes no difference. When I write a book it must engage the interest of the reader, and show some plot to it. It must not be jerky in its style and scattering in its statements.

I know it is a great temptation to write a book that will sell, but we should have a higher object than that.

I do not wish to do an injustice to a man who has done so much for the world, and one who could spell the longest word without hesitation, but I speak of these things just as I would expect people to criticise my work. If we aspire to monkey with the literati of our day we must expect to be criticised. That’s the way I look at it.

P.S.–I might also state that Noah Webster was a member of the Legislature of Massachusetts at one time, and though I ought not to throw it up to him at this date, I think it is nothing more than right that the public should know the truth.

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