Book Review: Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman

Cover of "The Professor and the Madman: A...

Ah, the stylish facial hair of ages past.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  By Simon Winchester.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

If Jane Eyre and the OED could have a bookish little baby, The Professor and the Madman might be the result.  Simon Winchester tells the tale of how Dr. W. C. Minor, a schizophrenic confined to Broadmoor Hospital for murder, became one of the greatest contributors to the OED.  Smoothly, even slickly, written, this book is certainly a page-turner—but the shortcuts on the way to a good yarn weaken it substantially.

Perhaps Winchester’s most interesting revelation about the dictionary is that its distinctive documentation of word development—in which the history of a word is charted by quotations from historical source—was simply too substantial a project for the scholars behind the OED to effect themselves.  Instead, the quotations were searched for and compiled by volunteers from all over the world, not unlike a nineteenth-century Wikipedia.  Enter Dr. Minor.  Convinced that evil Irishmen were sneaking into his room forcing him to commit unspeakable acts at night, this American had run through the streets of London’s slums, chasing down and killing an innocent brewery worker.  After that, let’s just say he had a lot of time on his hands.

Ostensibly, The Professor and the Madman retraces the friendship between Minor and Professor James Murray, the remarkable self-taught editor of the dictionary.  In reality, Winchester concentrates on Minor’s sordid life.  (He was obsessed with prostitutes!  He branded a deserter during the Civil War!  He cut off his own penis!)  Given the material, the choice is understandable, but as the interesting-but-ignored tangents stacked up, I began to feel cheated.  For example, there were a number of prominent female contributors to the OED.  That’s a surprise; can we hear more about them?  What about Fredrick Furnivall, one of the early editors of the volume, who was a brilliant scholar, political radical, captain of a rowing team for working-class women, and famed jerk?  Winchester mentions Dr. Fitzedward Hall, the OED’s other most prolific contributor, only in passing.  Hall, like Minor, was also American, also had a fascinating backstory of early experiences in South Asia, and also . . . was crazy!  Who passes that up?  Why is this book not called The Madman and the Madman?

My frustration with the author’s nonpursuit of these meaty tangents was multiplied by his tendency to fill the book in with fictional fluff.  He begins with a story that he doesn’t reveal as apocryphal until two-thirds of the way through.  He theorizes about Minor’s feelings and thoughts regarding the soldier he was forced to brand during the Civil War.  He even has the temerity to speculate—without any evidence whatsoever—that Minor slept with his victim’s wife and cut off his own penis out of guilt.  Spare us the imaginary drama.  Give us the real drama!

Informed by my perspective of grouchy liberalism, I have an additional objection to The Professor and the Madman.  The closing paragraph of the book begins with the line, “There is some occasional carping that the [OED] reflects an elitist, male, British, Victorian tone.  Yet even in the admission that, like so many achievements of the era, it did reflect a set of attitudes not wholly harmonic with those prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, none seem to suggest that any other dictionary has ever come close, or will come close, to the achievement that it offers.”  Hear that, feminism?  Subaltern studies?  Scholars and activists on the issues of race and class?  You’re just carping!  Actually you should be thanking white Western men for all they’ve done for you!  Winchester misses the point here: oppressed people don’t spend much time worrying about the relative quality of the tools of their oppression.

The Professor and the Madman might leave you wishing that people who wrote popular history actually paid attention to how best to write history, but perhaps that’s too much to ask.  In the end, this is an exciting, absorbing book—beach reading for intellectuals.  It’s gossipy, but disguised with a historian’s gloss.  Buy it for the sexy librarian in your life.