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Seeing the Rebel: Or, How to Do Things with Dictionaries in Nineteenth-Century America
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Seeing the Rebel:
Or, How to Do Things with Dictionaries in Nineteenth-Century America

I spend a lot of time with texts that are pretty sure of what they have to say. For example, this one—an 1816 essay about language by Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale:

The English language abounds in words, expressive of the rights, privileges, and duties, of freemen. This fact is a complete proof, independently of all history, that they [the English] have been much occupied in enjoying, and maintaining, these rights and privileges; and in performing these duties: in other words, that they have been a nation of freemen.1

I find this kind of utter certitude revealing, especially when I can’t quite relate to it: I’m dubious about Dwight’s claim that there is an “abundance” of words about freedom in English—and even if there is, that prevalence does not seem to me like “complete proof” of the essential liberality of English national history. Still, the history of ideas is often the history of superseded obviousnesses, and Dwight’s perception of what the English language verifies about the English people is useful evidence for the argument I’m making in my book about language and identity at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Arguments are good. So is evidence. But the more time I spend with overt, expository texts like Dwight’s, the more I appreciate texts and textual artifacts that resist exposition. I came across Dwight’s essay [End Page 2]

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Figure 1.

Handwritten marginalia in a copy of Thomas Browne’s Union Dictionary (London, 1800) at the American Philosophical Society (call number VGN 423 B81U). All images are courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. This inscription reads: “I want to speack PRIvately to you.”

when I was at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia a few years ago, reading around in early nineteenth-century philology, and I knew immediately what to do with it. But it was a different discovery at the APS, one that I did not know what to do with, that gave me a greater and more revealing plea sure, even if it is not a plea sure that I know how to make evidentiary use of. It was a copy of Thomas Browne’s Union Dictionary, printed in London in 1800, in which some unknown nineteenth-century child with a pencil had apparently amused herself by making words and sentences out of the printed “catch letters” on about a hundred of the book’s five hundred pages. As I turned the pages of this dictionary, puzzling out the haphazard handwriting, I felt that I was reading an unusually frank, if oddly coauthored, record of a nineteenth-century child’s subjective world: promiscuous fragments of the child’s heard or read environment, refracted through her imagination and her imperfect literacy, and then through the chance deletions of over-trimmed pages and fading pencil marks. Although it’s not possible to know the identity of the child who penciled these words in the dictionary’s margins (the book’s movements between being printed in 1800 and being donated to the APS in 1991 are unknown), it is clear that the annotations date from the nineteenth century, as they had evidently already been made when the book’s pages were trimmed and put into the current, decidedly nineteenth-century binding. To the extent that I was able to decipher the inscriptions, here they are. They have never been printed before: [End Page 3]

a BAR of iron is heavy


FIDdle sticks [and?] a FIG

FILl the Jugs with FINe rum

FIR [illegible]

the water FLOws down

GULlup it do[wn?]

HE did not like it



PIN your [illegible]

your in the PIT at last

POP goes the cork

pigs PORk

PORe the water out

POSsitiveliye I did

clean the POTs

do not POUt so

PRAy do

I want to speack PRIvately to you

you PULled me down do not PUNish me

the pussy PURs