Booknotes, Sunday, November 8, 1998
Simon Winchester discusses The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.).
A fascinating portrait of Dr. W.C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran confined to a British insane asylum, who contributed more than 10,000 definitions during the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. Its creation began in 1857, took 70 years, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious storythat of two remarkable men whose strange 20-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands who submitted quotations illustrative of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor; he was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, 50 milles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularlyand mysteriouslyrefused. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly 10,000 definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minorthat, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insaneand locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for the criminally insane. The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riverting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary. from the publisher's website (timspalding)
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