A IS FOR AMERICAN: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States

Jill Lepore, Author . Knopf $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-375-40449-8

In her latest effort, historian Lepore (winner of the Bancroft Prize for The Name of War) explores the significant and occasionally unsettling ways language was used to define national character and boundaries in the early American republic. Focusing on seven men—Noah Webster, Samuel F.B. Morse, William Thornton, Sequoyah, Thomas Gallaudet, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima and Alexander Graham Bell—Lepore offers a scholarly analysis of how they devised alphabets, syllabaries, codes and signs "to build national ties or to break them down." The complex underlying stories—the personal flaws or the admirable or questionable intentions that fueled these icons' missions—shed new light on history we thought we knew. Webster, for instance, wanted to reform spelling to distance Americans from their British origins; Thornton sought a universal alphabet; and Morse was after a telegraphic code that could connect the world's peoples. Some of the accounts have provocative twists, too, such as the story of Sequoyah's development of the Cherokee alphabet, and that of freed slave Abd al-Rahman's literacy in Arabic, which helped him gain passage back to Africa. "Their stories, and the letters and other characters with which [these men] communicated," Lepore argues, "trace the tension in the United States between nationalism, often fueled by nativist prejudices, and universalism, inspired by both evangelism and the Enlightenment." Lepore concludes with a brief analysis of the philosophies behind the Internet, which seeks to make one neighborhood of the entire globe. Although sometimes academic in tone, this study will find a general audience appreciative of its new perspectives on America's past and its valuable insights into the dynamics at work in society today. Illus. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 12/17/2001
Release date: 02/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 256 pages - 978-0-375-70408-6
Open Ebook - 174 pages - 978-0-307-42438-9
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