Lost in the maze of words: Reading and re-reading Noah Webster's dictionaries
Austin, Nathan W
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Lost in the Maze of Words explores the intersection of lexicographical and poetic practices in American literature, and attempts to map out a "lexical poetics." Taking Noah Webster's dictionaries as the dissertation's starting point and center, I identify a historical and cultural context within which a range of American poets can be considered; simultaneously, I investigate the ways in which American poetry has inherited Webster, has drawn upon his lexicography in order to reinvent it. The dissertation hinges on key definitions from both the Compendious (1806) and American (1828) dictionaries, and brings into its discourse a range of concerns, including the politics of American English, the question of national identity and culture in the early moments of American independence, and the poetics of citation and of definition. Part one examines Webster's dictionaries as a national definition produced within the context of an emergent and unstable American socio-political and cultural identity. Drawing on the lexicographer's identification of his project as a "federal language," I read his competing impulses towards regularity and innovation in historical terms, and argue that the contradictions of Webster's project comprise part of a larger dialectical play between liberty and order within Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary political debates. The remaining chapters build on part one's groundwork to explore more fully the notion of lexical poetics. Chapter three explores the poetics of the American Dictionary , showing the ways meaning works between definitions and the texts they draw into play; this chapter demonstrates the construction of linguistic meaning and national identity at the heart of Webster's project, while it also suggests that this construction is ultimately unstable. Chapters four and five identify an American poetic tradition that has, directly and/or indirectly, emerged from Webster's project. By way of Walt Whitman's poetic rejection of dictionaries, Gertrude Stein's work borrows from a tradition of American linguistic innovation to remake the ways we use language to perceive the world. And Language poets Lyn Hejinian and Tina Darragh show alternative methods of using dictionaries that constitute radical departures from the authority they impart and are productive of altogether other ways of thinking.