Jill Lepore. A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. 241 pp. $13.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-375-70408-6; $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-375-40449-8.
Reviewed by Gary J. Kornblith (History Department, Oberlin College)
Published on H-SHEAR (June, 2002)
Communicating at Cross Purposes
Communicating at Cross Purposes
The shocking events of 9/11 have yielded an outpouring of "pure and simple" patriotism that seems to run against scholarly trends in the study of American history and culture. Since the 1960s academic historians have increasingly emphasized the fault lines within American society and the contested quality of American identity. In the 1980s and 1990s the search for a singular "American character" gave way to the quest for a usable multicultural past that would not only encompass but celebrate marginalized groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, working-class women, Asian Americans, and Latinos. Yet in the wake of 9/11, flag-waving has come back into fashion and the phrase "United We Stand" has emerged as a national mantra. The pieties of the Cold War have been reformulated as a struggle between freedom and terror, and the central theme of American good versus un-American evil resonates once again. Can a revival of consensus historiography be far behind?
Jill Lepore does not address this question explicitly in A is for American, which went to press in the spring of 2001, but the book combines elements of the classic American Studies paradigm with sensitivity to concerns raised by the current generation of social and cultural historians. For lack of a better term, I am tempted to describe her approach as "post-multicultural." Issues of personal identity, group cohesion, and the difficulties of communication between people of different physical attributes and cultural backgrounds figure centrally in Lepore's account, but A is for American does not employ "race, class, and gender" as its matrix of analysis. As her title suggests, Lepore wants us to think about commonalities within American culture, not just the fault lines, and to ponder those values that distinguish "American-ness" from other sorts of national and transnational identities.
The core of A is for American is a series of biographical sketches of persons who, with one exception, promoted innovative alphabets or other new systems of communication. Lepore's selected subjects are Noah Webster, William Thornton, Sequoyah (a.k.a. George Guess), Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Alexander Graham Bell. Each is male, and each gets his own chapter. "By most conventional measures, these men had little in common," she acknowledges (p. 11). Yet she contends, "Taken together, they bear on the most pressing issues facing the newly United States on the roller coaster ride from Revolution to Reconstruction: the need for an educated citizenry, the problem of faction in a large republic, the fear of disunion, and the challenge of unifying a diverse people" (p. 12).
In the first section (two chapters) of A is for American, Lepore juxtaposes Webster, the nationalist, and Thornton, the internationalist. Webster promoted the development of a distinctive American language, with spellings radically different from those used by the English, in the hope of simultaneously bringing Americans of widely various colonial backgrounds closer together and affirming their separate cultural identity from the former Mother Country. Thornton, on the other hand, sought to invent a "universal alphabet" that would transcend national boundaries and unite all of humanity by means of a worldwide linguistic bond. Both recognized that how people communicated with one another was essential to social cohesion, and each believed that by reforming orthography, he could uplift civilization. Though by Lepore's measure "[n]either succeeded," between them they set the terms of an enduring American debate over the uses of letters and language for the next hundred years.
The book's second section (three chapters) focuses on how three advocates and/or representatives of marginalized groups in nineteenth-century America employed special alphabets and signs to advance their causes. Sequoyah invented a syllabary of eighty-six characters that permitted his fellow Cherokees to commit their language to paper with remarkable ease. "To what extent did Sequoyah's syllabary help nationalize the Cherokee people in the way that Noah Webster hoped to Americanize Americans?" Lepore asks (p. 79). She reaches a mixed conclusion: Cherokee nationalists pointed to Sequoyah's achievement as evidence of their people's unique civilization while missionaries used the syllabary to promote Christianization. In the end, the syllabary allowed Cherokees (especially traditionalists) to preserve important elements of their culture, but it did nothing to stop Indian Removal.
Gallaudet was not himself a member of the group whose position he sought to improve, the deaf. At a time when British experts advocated "speech training" for the deaf, Gallaudet introduced the French system of signing into the United States. According to Lepore, "[h]e believed that [sign language] was the natural, universal language of all humankind, God's gift to His people" (p. 93). As such, he stood at Thornton's end of the nationalist-internationalist spectrum. Yet ironically signing soon came under attack for its separatist implications: it allowed the deaf to communicate effectively among themselves but not with the hearing population, leaving them isolated from the larger society.
Lepore titles her chapter about Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima "Strange Characters"--a reference to the Arabic alphabet--and her decision to include him in the book seems peculiar. A slave who had been an African prince before his capture, Abd al-Rahman did not develop a distinctive alphabet or other system of communication. Instead, as an old man, he gained his freedom by demonstrating his supposed fluency in written Arabic, and he became a poster figure for the American Colonization Society. His story illustrates the importance of literacy as a lever of power, and it enables Lepore to address the status of slaves and free blacks in antebellum American society. Yet she goes well beyond her evidence when she concludes that "Abd al-Rahman's story ... points out just how invested most freed slaves were in assimilation, rather than colonization, in language as in all else" (p. 134).
In the third section (two chapters), Lepore turns to the invention of electronic means for conveying letters and language. She delights in highlighting the ironies of Morse's life story. A rabid nativist, he created a code and a machine that encouraged international communication--and hence spurred immigration. A champion of the Union but a fierce opponent of abolition, he witnessed the outbreak of the Civil War, which telegraphy could not prevent but which it helped the North to win. Lastly, the inventor of an electronic alphabet, he failed to master sign language, thereby sharply limiting his ability to communicate with his second wife, who was deaf.
By comparison to Morse, Alexander Graham Bell seems a model of consistency. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, invented Visible Speech, a supposedly universal alphabet comprised of "characters that represented the exact position of the organs of speech-the shape of the mouth, tongue, and palate-necessary to make the corresponding sound" (p. 166). The son promoted his father's method as a way of teaching the deaf to speak. He then invented the "phonautograph," which used an ear from a corpse and a haystalk to convert sounds into tracings on smoked glass. From the phonautograph emerged the telephone, a device for the hearing, yet Bell remained committed to serving the deaf. On one critically important matter he did reverse himself, however: fearful that intermarriage among the deaf would lead to a self-perpetuating deaf race, he withdrew his earlier support for sign language and pushed relentlessly for its suppression. "[I]n his son's hands," Lepore observes, "Melville Bell's Visible Speech was transformed from a quixotic search for universal communication to a campaign, newly buttressed by evolutionary science, for language uniformity" (p. 185).
Do these stories add up to a cohesive interpretation of the relationship between communication and cultural identity in nineteenth-century America? I am dubious. In the book's epilogue, Lepore explains that her foremost concern is "the tension in the United States between nationalism, often fueled by nativist prejudices, and universalism, inspired by both evangelism and the Enlightenment" (p. 190). She argues that because "American nationalism has universalist origins," the United States "must always be in danger of losing its nationness, of becoming part of something bigger than itself" (p. 192). Yet by her own account, innovative communication systems could serve conflicting purposes, and the politics of their developers did not necessarily dictate the diverse uses to which their alphabets, syllabaries, and codes were put. There was no straightforward correspondence between the mode of communication and the advance of either nationalism, separatism, or universalism as a cultural objective.
In the final pages of A is for American, Lepore jumps from the nineteenth century to the present day, and she suggests that, with the advent of computers, PDAs, and other digital machinery, "we've replaced characters with numbers" (p. 196). But the use of numbers as a system of communication is hardly new. On the contrary, as Patricia Cline Cohen has shown in A Calculating People, it was a major part of the cultural history of nineteenth-century America--a part that Lepore unfortunately neglects. Perhaps, given the huge success of Lepore's first book, The Name of War, I expected too much of A is for American. But I must admit that I came away from it thinking that the book's analysis, taken as a whole, was less than the sum of its often fascinating and brilliantly insightful parts.
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Gary J. Kornblith. Review of Lepore, Jill, A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States.
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