The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary|
by Simon Winchester
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|A Review of: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Michael Kinsella
Like Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (2003)-an account of the
volcanic eruption of 1883 and its geological, political, artistic
and religious reverberations in the present day-Simon Winchester's
earlier success The Professor and the Madman (1999) might be described
as a book on subterranean forces. Even though the human scale and
its tale of small individual endeavours is dwarfed by seismic shifts,
rifts and the greatest explosion in recorded human history, there
is perhaps something more compelling about the smaller intimacies
of this earlier story.
Set in the late 1900s, The Professor and the Madman, according to
the blurb, is a literary history' on the false starts, interruptions
and some seventy years it took to make the Oxford English Dictionary
(OED). Yet it might more accurately be described as an interweaving
of biographies and fantasies. For it is a revelation of the lives
of James Murry, general editor of the OED, Dr. W.C. Minor, one of
its major contributors, and words themselves.
Born in 1837, Murry was a poor, self-educated Scot and a member of
the Congregationalist Church. As a child he seems to have been a
kind of Hardyesque Jude figure. He was a voracious learner, taking
an interest in maps, archaeology and astronomy. But it was his
appetite for language that led him out of teaching and into his
role as the general editor of the big dictionary', at Oxford. It
was there he set up his Scriptorium' and with military efficiency'
and a sense of monkish asceticism' set about the task. From there,
Murry enlisted the help of thousands of volunteers and one of the
most prolific and exacting contributors was William Chester Minor.
Like Murry, Minor was from a pious Congregationalist background.
But his upbringing was altogether more exotic. Born on the tropical
island of Ceylon, in 1834, the "Minors were first-line American
aristocracy." When he was thirteen William was sent back to
the United States to be given a formal education, before beginning
his studies at Yale Medical School in 1861. Shortly after graduation
he joined The Union Army, just four days before the Battle of
Gettysburg. Confronted with horrific injuries, and though a gifted
surgeon, the medicine he practised could only fumble in the wounds
of casualities. And it must have gone against the very core of his
being when, at one point, he was ordered to punish an Irish deserter
by branding his face with the letter D.
Exposure to such brutality seems to have irrevocably disturbed
Minor, leading to his discharge from the army and eventual
hospitalisation. As one of the "walking wounded" he
travelled to England to try to recover his former self, like a kind
of latter-day Hamlet. He took lodgings in the Lambeth part of
Dickensian London and it was there he shot and killed George Merrett
(to whom Winchester dedicates his book) believing him to be a Fenian
who was planning to kill him. Convicted of murder, Minor was treated
sympathetically and sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally
Insane in Crowthorne. He brought with him all his books, easel,
paints and flute and it was there, in his prison cell, that he began
to contribute to the dictionary. And the first word he researched
Words are, of course, the other protagonists. As Winchester rightly
suggests, a dictionary should "give the life story of each
word"; it should"offer its biography" and record the
register of its birth. To think of words as having a biography gives
them a life and slipperiness that the authoritative language of
etymology and lexicography seems to conceal. And one delightful
aspect of this book is the way words, such as "murder",
"polymath", "sesquipedalian" and "diagnosis"
are defined at the beginning of each chapter, telling us something
about its theme and the progression of the story. There are wonderful
asides as well, such as Samuel Johnson's charmingly eccentric and
redundant definition of an elephant as being "The largest of
all quadrupeds" who is "equipped with a trunk,"
which, in turn, indicate why a dictionary was needed to modernise,
simplify and standardise words, their spelling and their meaning.
This was a mammoth task. And through the thousands of entries that
Minor sent Murry they came to know one another. Before their first
meeting, Murry had imagined that Minor was a medical man of literary
tastes who had retired to the country to pursue his interest in
books and language. He was astonished to learn of the American's
circumstances, yet nonetheless sympathetic and he continued to visit
him over twenty years.
Like biography, fantasies are as much about what has been said as
what has been left out. And Winchester's tale is, in part, about
the fantasies of an age and of an individual. There is the Victorian
fantasy that a dictionary could fix the language, that it was a
monumental work of complete authority and not an endless effort
that attempts to keep apace with the evolution of words and their
meanings. And then there are Minor's perverse sexual imaginings and
paranoid fear of the Irish. It is instructive, at this point, to
refer to a moment in W. B Yeats's Autobiographies, when he remembers
his own childish and dreamy wish to die fighting the Fenians. This
is not to suggest that Yeats should be our picture of mental health,
but the shape the Irish poet put upon his own fantasies serves to
highlight how Minor was governed by the limited repertoire of his
own imaginings. In other words, Yeats was free to invent in a way
that Minor was not.
Winchester's accounts of Minor's misery are clearly sympathetic.
His madness is not glamorised, as so many accounts of madness are.
And this book, in effect, gives us a case-history, charting Minor's
first sexual lustings as a young boy in Ceylon, his later fear that
he would be murdered by Fenians, to his belief that he was being
molested in his cell by men, and ultimately to his act of self-mutilation
when he cut off his penis. Although the progress of the dictionary
and Minor's insanity makes for a compelling read, at times,
Winchester's style can be portentous. For instance, the first
chapter, "The Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh", it might
be said, owes less to the Dickensian prose that opens Great
Expectations and perhaps more to what the Victorians called "penny
dreadfuls". He is perhaps too defensive about the OED project
itself and should have been more inclusive, outlining the arguments
of those academics that see the work as sexist, racist, fussy and
imperial. For these shortcomings do not necessarily diminish the
dictionary, but instead are reminders to each generation of the
organic nature of such work-that it continually needs updating,
that it is not monumental but fluid. There are some omissions. For
instance, Minor's barrister may have been Edward Clarke, who defended
Oscar Wilde, which seems to be a coincidence full of possibility.
Also, Winchester hints at, when he really should have engaged with,
the homo-erotic qualities of Minor's fantasies. And I would have
liked Winchester to develop further his claim that "doing all
those dictionary slips was [Minor's] medication; in a way they
became his therapy" and to explore what it might have meant
for him to be researching the biography' of words rather than
rehearsing his own fantasies. Yet, despite such criticism, the most
engaging moments in The Professor and the Madman occur when Winchester
moves beyond a well represented account and gets caught up in the
momentum and risk of oversight, speculation and inventiveness.