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Joshua Kendall

Poets and Their Passion for Lexicographers: Plath and Roget, Dickinson and Webster

Poets and Their Passion for Lexicographers

In the days before the internet, writers used to develop passionate feelings toward the lexicographers whose masterpieces adorned their desks. In her diary entry for February 19, 1956, the young Sylvia Plath, then a graduate student at Cambridge University, writes: "Today my thesaurus, which I would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible, as I have so often boasted cleverly, lay open after I'd written a draft of a bad, sick poem, at 545: Deception...." Plath's attachment to Roget's was not merely Platonic. A week later, in the same entry in which she describes her famous first kiss with "that tall, dark, hunky boy" -- the poet Ted Hughes whom she would marry just four months later -- Plath confesses that she already has a lover, characterizing herself as "Roget's strumpet."

A century earlier, another Bay State bard -- Emily Dickinson - had also fallen for a lexicographer. In 1844, when the poet was a teenager, her father, Edward Dickinson, bought a copy of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language published by J.S. and C. Adams of Amherst. Webster, who had lived in Amherst two decades earlier, was well known to the Dickinson family. His granddaughter, Emily Fowler, grew up in Amherst and was then attending Amherst Academy with Emily Dickinson. This was the last edition of the dictionary which the great lexicographer worked on before his death in 1843.

This two-volume book would be, as Emily Dickinson later wrote to her brother Austin, her "sole companion," one which she repeatedly mined as she found her artistic voice. The great poet, her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi once declared, read this dictioanry as "a priest his breviary" or a book of daily devotions.

I recently examined the Dickinson family's copy of Webster's 1844 dictionary, which is now held at Harvard's Houghton Library. And one can see that Emily Dickinson literally inhabited the book. While there are no marginalia, there is evidence of her love. The green dye, which intitally covered the outside of all the pages, is no longer visible on the foredge. The likely culprit? The wear and tear caused by Dickinson's busy thumbs.

The only words in the book are her father's name -- Edward Dickinson -- printed on the first page of the first volume. If Virginia Woolf couldn't have "a room of her own," Dickinson couldn't have "a dictionary of her own." But while she had to borrow her father's book, she could have Noah Webster's genius all to herself.

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About the Author

Joshua Kendall is a journalist and biographer. His latest book is America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy that Built a Nation, to be published in June by Grand Central.

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