Saturday

Apr. 14, 2012

Proclamation at a Birth

by Linda Pastan

                                 for Anna

Let every tree
burst into blossom
whatever the season.
Let the snow melt
mild as milk
and the new rain wash
the gutters clean
of last year's
prophecies.
Let the guns sweep out
their chambers
and the criminals doze
dreaming themselves
back to infancy.
Let the sailors throw
their crisp white caps
as high as they can
which like so many doves
will return to the ark
with lilacs.
Let the frogs turn
into princes,
the princes to frogs.
Let the madrigals,
let the musical croakings
begin.

"Proclamation at a Birth" by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was published (books by this author). Webster put together the dictionary because he wanted Americans to have a national identity that wasn't based on the language and ideas of England. And the problem wasn't just that Americans were looking to England for their language; it was that they could barely communicate with each other because regional dialects differed so drastically.

Noah Webster was schoolteacher in Connecticut. He was dismayed at the state of education in the years just after the Revolution. There wasn't much money for supplies, and students were crowded into small one-room schoolhouses using textbooks from England that talked about the great King George. His students' spelling was atrocious, as was that of the general public; it was assumed that there were several spellings for any word.

So in 1783, he published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language; the first section was eventually retitled The American Spelling Book, but usually called by the nickname "Blue-Backed Speller." The Blue-Backed Speller taught American children the rules of spelling, and it simplified words — it was Webster who took the letter "u" out of English words like colour and honour; he took a "g" out of waggon, a "k" off the end of musick, and switched the order of the "r" and "e" in theatre and centre.

In 1801, he started compiling his dictionary. Part of what he accomplished, much like his textbook, was standardizing spelling. He introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages: skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy, and presidential, Congress, and caucus, which were not relevant in England's monarchy.

Webster spent almost 30 years on his project, and finally, on this day in 1828, it was published. But unfortunately, it cost 15 or 20 dollars, which was a huge amount in 1828, and Webster died in 1843 without having sold many copies.

The book did help launch Webster as a writer and a proponent of an American national identity. Webster had a canny knack for marketing, traveling around to meet with new publishers and booksellers, publishing ads in the local newspapers for his book wherever he went. He also lobbied for copyright law and served for a time as an adviser to George Washington, and wrote his own edition of the Bible. And his tallies of houses in all major cities led to the first American census.

In his book The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (2011) Joshua Kendall argued that Noah Webster would today be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln (books by this author) was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., just five days after the surrender of the Civil War's Confederate leader, General Lee. Lincoln died the following morning.

It was on this night 100 years ago that the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on its way from Southampton, England, to New York City. The ship, on its maiden voyage and carrying more than 2,000 people, was designed with watertight compartments to withstand a head-on or side-impact collision. Instead, it scraped along the side of an iceberg for 10 seconds trying to avoid it, tearing open numerous separate compartments. The accident happened at 11:40 p.m.; less than an hour before, a nearby ship attempted to radio the Titanic to beware of ice ahead. The ship's wireless operator on duty, overwhelmed with his job of relaying personal messages to passengers, replied, "Shut up, shut up, I'm busy ..."

It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath (books by this author).

It's the legal birthday of the modern printing press, which William Bullock patented on this day in 1863 in Baltimore. His invention was the first rotary printing press to self-feed the paper, print on both sides, and count its own progress — meaning that newspapers, which had until then relied on an operator manually feeding individual sheets of paper into a press, could suddenly increase their publication exponentially.

The Cincinnati Times was likely the very first to use a Bullock press, with the New York Sun installing one soon after. Bullock was installing a press for The Philadelphia Press when he kicked at a mechanism; his foot got caught, his leg was crushed, and he died a few days later during surgery to amputate. His press went on to revolutionize the newspaper business.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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