The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester, 1998
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 70 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 of a friendship—an account of two remarkable men whose strange 20-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the brilliant editor of the OED project.
Dr. W. C. Minor, a retired American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. Not only was he remarkably prolific, sending in as many as ten thousand definitions, but he was also a murderer, clinically insane, and locked up in Broadmoor, England's asylum for criminal lunatics.
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 riveting 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.)
• Birth—September 28, 1944
• Where—England, UK
• Education—B.A., M.A., Oxford University
• Awards—Order of the British Empire (OBE)
• Currently—lives in Massachusetts, USA and Western Isles,
Simon Winchester was a geologist at Oxford and worked in Africa and on offshore oil rigs before becoming a full-time globe-trotting foreign correspondent and writer. He is the author of Krakatoa, The Map that Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Fracture Zone, among many other titles. He currently lives on a small farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.
Back in the spring of 2001, Simon Winchester was annoyed that readers had hijacked Roget's Thesaurus and turned it into a catalog of synonyms. Or was it that he was vexed?
He was fairly cheesed off, at any rate, taking both to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly and the studios of National Public Radio to decry how Peter Mark Roget's project to classify and organize the English language has turned into little more than a crutch for students hoping to impress their teachers with 10-cent words. Winchester's suggestion? Burn it.
"We think of Roget as an omnium-gatherum, if you like, an olla podrida, a gallimaufry, a collection of synonyms," he told NPR's Bob Edwards, "whereas it has to be said that the English language—now I know that people will ring up with howls of derision and say this isn't true, but the English language is so precise a collection of words that there really is no synonym."
Winchester certainly has the standing to make such an argument. A writer and adventurer for more than 30 years—with articles in such publications as the National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler and more than a dozen books on travel and history—Winchester is today best known for The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Oxford English Dictionary.
His 1998 book was the unlikeliest of best sellers, a book about a book, the world's first and still most comprehensive dictionary. With more than 400,000 definitions and almost 2 million usage examples, the OED was quite an undertaking, a more than seven-decade effort. Winchester takes great care to illustrate how mammoth and meticulously organized the process was: contributions from more than 2,000 of volunteers pouring in through the mail, carefully filed away into cubbyholes for future use. It may have been a labor of love over the English language, but it was also an excellent example of effective project management.
Winchester's book wasn't supposed to be one that would stay on the New York Times hardcover best seller list for more than a year. In fact, when it came time to publish book in the United States (it had already come out in the U.K.), Winchester's regular U. S. publisher passed, saying this was the subject of magazine articles, not books. Take it to the Atlantic Monthly.
It shows, I think, that there is deep, deep down—but underserved for a long time—an eagerness for real stories, real narratives, about rich and interesting things. We—writers, editors—just ignored this, by passed this. Now we are tapping into it again.
Winchester was heralded for his precise language, his brisk storytelling and re-creation of the fascinating relationship between the OED editor and his most prolific contributor, a murderer and asylum resident who complained of demons who would whisk him away to Constantinople brothels in the middle of the night.
Winchester, who, before his Madman success, had already filled bookshelves with tales from the Yangtze River, the Balkans, Argentina and Ulster, has now become publishing's king of what the New York Times calls "cocktail-party science." Reviewing Winchester's 2002 book, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, the Times said:
This manner of amplifying science or history with odd, figurative footnotes has become extremely popular; just read a full-length book about salt, for example.... But since The Professor and the Madman...Mr. Winchester has emerged as the leading practitioner of the method.... The rich and fascinating Krakatoa confirms his pre-eminence.
Winchester himself has said he simply likes to be precise. In fact, when NPR's Bob Edwards said that the author's pro-precision/anti-thesaurus position might live him open to charges of anti-populism, even elitism, Winchester shrugged it off.
I have to say that I'm not against elitism in writing," he responded. "Not at all. I'm going to attempt till I go to my grave, I think, to write in as precise and evocative and romantic way as I can and to care about the language. So maybe the readers won't like it. So maybe I am elitist. So suck it up.
• Winchester once spent three months looking at whirlpools on assignment for Smithsonian magazine.
• He once wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times to correct a factual error in an article about where the millennium would first hit land on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000. (It was the island of Tafahi, not the coral atoll Kirabati.)
• He reportedly loves the words "butterfly" and "dawn." (From Barnes & Noble.)
This is almost my favorite kind of book, the work of social and intellectual history which through the oblique treatment of major developments manages to throw unusual light on humankind and its doings.
Will Self - The Times of London
Simply wonderful, a beautifully written narrative that worked both as a history of lexicography's greatest hit and as a drama.
Michael Kelly - Atlantic Monthly
In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabokov and Borges. There is much truth to be drawn from it, about Victorian pride, the relation between language and the world, and the fine line between sanity and madness.
The Wall Street Journal
It is one of the strengths of this book that it will, by its very sensationalism, attract and inform readers who might never normally lay down cold hard cash for the 'fascinating story of the history of English lexicography'.... For those who know little of lexicography, this book is an entertaining, though not wholly reliable, introduction to the subject, particularly enlightening for those who labour under the delusion that the OED's role is to prescribe what is 'proper' and 'improper' English. It's a story for readers who know the joy of words and can appreciate side trips through the history of dictionaries and marvel at the idea that when Shakespeare wrote, there were no dictionaries to consult.... Winchester, a British journalist who's written 12 other books, combines a reporter's eye for detail with a historian's sense of scale. His writing is droll and eloquent
Bob Minzesheimer - USA Today
When we're children, the easiest way for writers and teachers and parents to hook us with a story is to begin with the words "Imagine a time when there was no..." Simon Winchester, in his splendid, oddball slice of history The Professor and the Madman has come up with an irresistible hook. Imagine a time, Winchester asks us, when there were no dictionaries. That's such an unthinkable prospect to most readers (and writers) that Winchester needn't do any more to keep our interest. But he does. Winchester, a Salon contributor, uses this utterly fascinating account of how a combination of scholarship and nationalism begat what would become the Oxford English Dictionary (a project that would eventually take 70 years and 12 volumes to complete) to tell the story of the odd friendship the project sparked.
The project began in earnest in 1878 under the editorship of Professor James Murray, a philologist and school teacher. Handbills were distributed through bookstores and libraries asking for volunteer readers to begin assembling word lists and quotations that illustrated the meanings of those words. One of the most productive of the volunteers was Dr. William Charles Minor, an American Army surgeon who had served in the Civil War. Gratified, Murray repeatedly invited Minor to visit him, invitations Minor always turned down. Murray finally discovered why: Minor had been an inmate at the Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane since 1871, when, in a deluded state, he had killed a man.
Winchester wisely doesn't try to explain Minor's madness, though he suggests that it may have had something to do with his wartime experiences (particularly one episode in which he was made to brand an Irish deserter). Winchester doesn't need to point up the irony that at Broadmoor, Minor found a more humane environment than he did in the Army. His cell consisted of two rooms, one large enough to house the books he used to pass what he probably knew would be a life sentence. Minor emerges as a learned, essentially decent man (even the widow of the man he killed was a regular visitor for a time), sadly caught in the grip of obsessive delusions.
If the initial sections of his tale have the appeal of a gaslight Victorian thriller, Winchester doesn't leave it at that. He's a superb historian because he's a superb storyteller. Nothing he includes here—whether it's an examination of the section of London where Minor committed his crime, the genealogy of the two protagonists (usually the dullest part of any history or biography) or a brief history of the very notion of dictionaries—feels like it's impeding his story. The strange richness of it all is enhanced by the flawless clarity of Winchester's prose. His Victorian style, far from being a pastiche or postmodernist game-playing, is his natural mode of expression. In this passage, he imagines Shakespeare composing Twelfth Night without aid of a dictionary: "Now what, exactly, did William Shakespeare know about elephants? Moreover, what did he know of Elephants as hotels? The name was one that was given to a number of lodging houses in various cities dotted around Europe.... But however many there were—just why was this the case? Why name an inn after such a beast? And what was such a beast anyway? All of these are questions that, one would think, a writer should at least have been able to answer."
Minor's diligence as a contributor resulted in his being responsible for something like 10,000 words in the final OED. He hoped that focusing on this task would deliver him from his psychosis, but Minor was also following his curiosities. Winchester, investigating an odd bit of background trivia about the making of one of the world's great books, has the courage of his own curiosity. The elegant curio he has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be.
Charles Taylor - Salon
The Oxford English Dictionary used 1,827,306 quotations to help define its 414,825 words. Tens of thousands of those used in the first edition came from the erudite, moneyed American Civil War veteran Dr. W.C. Minor—all from a cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Vanity Fair contributor Winchester (River at the Center of the World) has told his story in an imaginative if somewhat superficial work of historical journalism. Sketching Minor's childhood as a missionary's son and his travails as a young field surgeon, Winchester speculates on what may have triggered the prodigious paranoia that led Minor to seek respite in England in 1871 and, once there, to kill an innocent man. Pronounced insane and confined at Broadmoor with his collection of rare books, Minor happened upon a call for OED volunteers in the early 1880s. Here on more solid ground, Winchester enthusiastically chronicles Minor's subsequent correspondence with editor Dr. J.A.H. Murray, who, as Winchester shows, understood that Minor's endless scavenging for the first or best uses of words became his saving raison d'etre, and looked out for the increasingly frail man's well-being. Winchester fills out the story with a well-researched mini-history of the OED, a wonderful demonstration of the lexicography of the word 'art' and a sympathetic account of Victorian attitudes toward insanity. With his cheeky way with a tale ("It is a brave and foolhardy and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy," he writes of Minor's self-mutilation), Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task.
William C. Minor (1834-1920) was a Civil War surgeon whose war experience caused his personality to change. He became paranoid and was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. After three years in an asylum, he went to Europe in 1871 in pursuit of rest, getting as far as London before his paranoia caught up with him and he killed George Merritt. An English court found him not guilty on the ground of insanity, and Minor was sent to Broadmoor. Coming across a leaflet for volunteers to help compile a history of the English language, Minor offered his services, remaining vague about his background. After 17 years of correspondence, the editor of the came to meet Minor, who had submitted 10,000 definitions to the project, and was surprised that the genius was a patient at the Broadmoor Asylum. Finally released in 1910, Minor returned to the United States. Winchester's delightful, simply written book tells how a murderer made a huge contribution to what became a major reference source in the Western world. — Michael Sawyer, Northwestern Regional Library, Elkin, North Carolina
Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity. Manchester Guardian journalist Winchester (The River at the Center of the World) turns from Asia toward that most British of topics: the Oxford English Dictionary. His account is studded with odd persons and unexpected drama. To wit: When OED editor Professor James Murray headed off to meet a major contributor (of more than 10,000 entries) to his epochal reference work, he discovered that this distinguished philologist, Dr. William Chester Minor, was incarcerated for life in an asylum for the criminally insane. Minor, apparently a paranoiac killer, had committed murder in 1872.... Ailing (and sexually repressed), he clung to his lexicographic efforts for dear life and the sake of his sanity, or what remained of it. 'All those Dictionary slips,' opines Winchester, 'were [Minor's] medication, [and] became his therapy.' When he describes the original OED's '12 tombstone-sized volumes," we get a whiff of the grueling mental task exacted from its servants by the work, reminiscent of the labors involved in Melville's classic Bartleby the Scrivener, a book that is similarly a psychological masterwork. In praising the achievement of the work, Winchester rejoices, 'It wears its status with a magisterial self-assurance, not least by giving its half-million definitions a robustly Victorian certitude of tone.' Winchester's own tone and his prose are wonderfully Victorian, an apt mirror for his subject. The author begins each chapter with an entry from the original OED as an appropriate heading, such as 'murder,' 'lunatic,' 'polymath' ('a person of much or varied learning') and, eventually, 'acknowledgment.' First-rate writing: well-crafted, incisive, abundantly playful.
1. Who is Dr. W.C. Minor? How do you first come to know him at the beginning of The Professor and the Madman? What role does he play in the "Lambeth Tragedy?"
2. Who is James Murray? How would youcharacterize his early interest in philology? How does Murray come to work on the Oxford English Dictionary? What was the initial projection of how long the OED would take to complete?
3. How does Dr. Minor's madness first reveal itself? How do his experiences in Ceylon, at the Battle of the Wilderness, and in Florida relate to his condition? What are some of the symptoms of his illness? How would you describe his personality?
4. What did you think of the elaborate process of creating the Oxford English Dictionary? Was it easy to visualize? Did it surprise you to learn that in the end more than 6 million slips with definitions were submitted by volunteers?
5. How would you describe Dr. Minor's life at the asylum? How did he have access to books? What unusual visitor helped him in this respect? What aspects of his situation at the asylum did you find especially unusual? According to the author, how might Dr. Minor have learned of the creation of the OED?
6. How does his work on the OED change Dr. Minor's personality? How does it impact his madness? What are some of the ideas and rumors about Minor that float around the Scriptorium, where the OED is being written and edited?
7. How does Murray first learn of Dr. Minor's status as a criminally insane asylum inmate? How does Murray eventually come to know Minor? How would you describe their relationship? What aspects of their interaction lead you to this assessment?
8. How does Dr. Minor injure himself while he is at Broadmoor? How did you interpret this act? Do you agree with the author that his dismemberment was an attempt to purge himself of "unsavory" thoughts and deeds? How does the arrival of Dr. Brayn change the living conditions at Broadmoor for Dr. Minor?
9. What elements of this story did you find especially harrowing, fascinating, bewildering, surprising? Did you feel sympathetic toward Dr. Minor? Were you surprised at the strong bond that developed between him and James Murray?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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