What ties Americans to one another? What unifies a nation of citizens with different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds? These were the dilemmas faced by Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they sought ways to bind the newly United States together.
In A is for American, award-winning historian Jill Lepore portrays seven men who turned to language to help shape a new nation’s character and boundaries. From Noah Webster’s attempts to standardize American spelling, to Alexander Graham Bell’s use of “Visible Speech” to help teach the deaf to talk, to Sequoyah’s development of a Cherokee syllabary as a means of preserving his people’s independence, these stories form a compelling portrait of a developing nation’s struggles. Lepore brilliantly explores the personalities, work, and influence of these figures, seven men driven by radically different aims and temperaments. Through these superbly told stories, she chronicles the challenges faced by a young country trying to unify its diverse people.
What makes a nation national? Almost all of the standard dictionary definitions talk about language, often first and always prominently. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the five defining attributes of a nation are "common descent, language, culture, history, and occupation of the same territory." You would think the English-speaking United States circa 1800 would have fit the bill, but there were those who thought otherwise, and one of them was Noah Webster, the man who gave America its first homegrown dictionary. Webster argued that in order to win true independence from England, Americans needed to invent their own language, related to English but distinct from it. "A national language is a national tie," he proclaimed, "and what country wants it more than America?"
Two centuries down the line, this notion may seem quaint, but it turns out that many other early Americans were also thinking about the ways in which a common tongue can give its users a sense of national identity. Now Jill Lepore, an associate professor of history at Boston University, has written a compact study of what a half-dozen of these very interesting people had on their minds, and it is—not at all surprisingly—a very interesting book.
What sets Lepore apart from other historians who have studied the emerging idea of an "American language" is her concentration on a particular aspect of that language: spelling. Webster, for example, thought that the quickest way to create a national language would be for Americans as a group to adopt a simplified method of spelling, then use that method as a means of imposing a uniform system of pronunciation on the new country. (Under hissystem, "grieve" would have been spelled "greev.") Influenced by Benjamin Franklin, he eventually went so far as to advocate the introduction of a brand-new, all-American alphabet, enthusiastically declaring that it would "render the people of this country national."
Webster's plan, like all previous and subsequent attempts to regularize English spelling, was stillborn, but its underlying purpose—to alter national self-consciousness—remained central to the thinking of other reformers of the period. William Thornton, who designed the rotunda and facade of the U.S. Capitol, also experimented with a "universal alphabet" intended to accurately convey any possible pronunciation of which human beings were capable, hoping that it would lead to greater international cooperation. A Native American named Sequoyah created an eighty-six-character Cherokee "syllabary," the first writing system to be used by American Indians, thus making it possible for his widely dispersed people to attain a significant degree of national unity. Most influential of all was Samuel Morse, whose dot-and-dash alphabet turned the electric telegraph from a clever but ultimately impractical gimmick into a world-changing instrument of "universal communication."
Lepore is keenly alert to the ironies inherent in the stories she tells. (Morse, for instance, may have made the world a smaller place, but he intended nothing of the kind: He was a pro-slavery, anti-Catholic nativist.) She also writes in a clear, crisp English free of all traces of the pseudointellectual jargon beloved by too many of her academic colleagues. A Is for American is so well written, in fact, that you can read almost to the very end before starting to wonder whether its engaging style, like a tasty sauce, might be covering up certain conceptual difficulties.
It is not enough simply to say, as Lepore does, that this book traces "the tension in the United States between nationalism, often fueled by nativist prejudices, and universalism, inspired by both evangelism and the Enlightenment." That's a road map, not a destination. Does she believe that America did in fact develop an identifiably American language? Does she feel that American nationalism is a bad thing? Does she really think that the people whose tales she tells had more in common than a variously quirky interest in the relationship between language and national character?
Alas, Lepore doesn't come fully to grips with any of these questions. Instead, she closes with an overcompressed discussion of Graffiti, the handwritten English alphabet that can be read by computers (it's used in Palm Pilots), half-concluding that it is sort of like Morse code, but not quite: "Graffiti's globalism ... hints at how, in the transformation from a 'republic of letters' to a 'digital economy,' we've replaced characters with numbers." As a result, A Is for American doesn't end—it just stops.
Despite her inability to weld the book together with a compelling conclusion, Lepore has nonetheless produced a work of cultural history that is both diverting and informative, one that will introduce you to a gallery of "men whose lives are rich with irony and passion and a certain kind of flawed earnestness." That's what makes them worth reading about. They were good and bad, right and wrong, certain and confused—just like America, the endlessly complicated country whose identity they sought to shape.