It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, 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 story–a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.
Review by Michael Connery
Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is an ode to lexicography. It is a brilliant discourse on the history of English language dictionaries; a detailed recounting of the political, social, and academic cultures of Victorian England that birthed the great OED; an in-depth study of the monumental effort it took to create the dictionary; and a poignant glimpse into the lives of two men at the heart of its creation.
Winchester’s tireless research is evident on the pages of this slim but weighty tome. Peppered with extracts from medical files, letters, newspapers, the nonfiction tale, while filled with sympathetic conjecture, is underpinned and bolstered with primary sources and facts. Not only does Winchester broach the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, but he also briefly tackles the history of all English and European lexicographical efforts up to the point of the undertaking to create the OED. The illustrations paired with almost each chapter are quaint and simple, and while they do not add anything to the story, they have a charming Victorian feel to them. Each chapter begins with an epigraph, an entry from the very dictionary being explored. Even some of the typefaces used in the book are a nod to the history revolving around the dictionary.
The two men at the heart of Winchester’s tale could not appear more different at first glance: Professor James Murray, a poor Scottish man, and Dr. William Minor, a wealthy American doctor and a veteran of the Civil War. Yet both possessed astonishing minds. Murray’s elevated him in society, particularly after he was placed at the helm of what was first referred to as the New English Dictionary. Minor’s was at once his boon and his torment.
Winchester uses a sensitive hand when painting a picture of the American doctor for the reader, a man who was as tortured as he was brilliant. Both men’s early years are explored, but it is Dr. Minor’s whose requires some speculation and theory as a promising young man from a well-to-do founding family slides into madness. Murray is a fascinating figure in his own right, but it is Minor who dominates the story. And though Winchester is obviously sympathetic to the doctor, he does not smooth over the tragedy the man inflicted: In the grip of delusion, Minor murdered an innocent man, leaving behind a grieving widow and eight young children. Sentenced to live out the remainder of his years in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Minor sought refuge in his beloved books and by serendipitous chance happened upon an appeal to the public for assistance in creating a new, comprehensive dictionary of the English language. And thus began decades of an unusual friendship and a monumental contribution to a work that continues to hold a vaulted esteem in all academic and literary pursuits.
Winchester’s writing style is loquaciously eloquent, lyrical and intelligent and reveling in the history of the English language and lexicography. The author has taken a scholarly, decades-long literary endeavor and woven a stunning tragedy and character drama into the fabric of the telling. Poignant and elegant, The Professor and the Madman is a tale that is both moving and memorable.
Highly recommended for fans of nonfiction, of literary endeavor, of the history of English lexicography, of character studies, and of philologists everywhere