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A Man Who Lived Upon Learning

ISSUE:  Spring 1978
Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. By K. M. Elisabeth Murray. Yale. $15.00.

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), John Locke taught the 18th century that the child was the father of the man. Nine men out of ten, Locke stressed, were made “Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education.” During the 18th century, British society became increasingly mobile. Man was not simply to the manor born or to the tenement doomed. He fast became what education made him. During the first half of the century, Charity Schools spread rapidly while during the 1780’s the Sunday School Movement swept across the land promising an end to moral chaos and intellectual night. Responding to the interest in education, publishers began devoting much of their energies to children’s books. The first publisher to market children’s books on a large scale was John Newbery. In 1764 Newbery’s The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread appeared. Giles came from an undistinguished background. His father “Old Gaffer Gingerbread” baked gingerbread and sold it on the streets for a living. Like his famous contemporaries Goody Two-Shoes and Little King Pippin, who used letters not bootstraps to pull themselves out of poverty, Giles was a scholar. He was, as Newbery put it, “A Little Boy who lived upon Learning.” Although Gaffer Gingerbread himself had not enjoyed the wholesome benefits of education, he knew that learning would determine his son’s future. Accordingly, he cooked Giles a gingerbread alphabet. After Giles learned the letters, he ate them, and they become both a literal and metaphoric part of his being. Next old Gingerbread baked a hornbook on which he inscribed a syllabary. The hornbook also quickly disappeared, for when Gaffer Gingerbread returned from his rounds, he discovered Giles “had eat up one Corner of his Book.” Giles rapidly progressed beyond letters and syllables, and his father soon baked him books which taught not merely factual knowledge but also religious and moral truths. The learning which Giles devoured was, not surprisingly, well-digested, and within a short time, Giles journeyed to London. In the metropolis he continued to feed upon learning, and in a few years he was riding grandly in a coach and six,

Caught in the Web of Words describes the life of a 19th-century Giles Gingerbread. Although James Murray’s diet was more substantial than Giles’s sugared texts, he too was first a boy, then a man who lived upon learning. The son of a tailor, rather than a baker, James Murray was born in 1837. At 18 months, he knew his letters; and the first time he saw his baby brother, born in 1838, he brought out his primer saying, “I will show little brudder round O and crooked S.” At school he was an extraordinary student and like Giles devoured every book which fell into his hands. The world provided him an uncloying feast, and knowledge burst on his palate fine untinged by Romantic melancholy. He lived with great intellectual gusto, and as a young man, he studied botany, geology, and archaeology. Although his formal education ended when he was 14, he continued his studies. At 17 his labors were rewarded, and he was appointed assistant headmaster of the Hawick United Schools. At 20 he became headmaster of the Hawick Academy, a private school. Like that grand Victorian, Tennyson’s Ulysses, Murray was forever seeking new worlds. A man whose spiritual ancestry stretched back to the self-help children’s books of the 18th century and skipped the self-pitying texts of Romanticism, young Murray was never weighed down by a heavy weight of hours. He did not rust unburnished. Life was real and earnest. Time did not rest heavy on his hands because he put it to educational use. Later in life, he said that he had learned two languages while walking to the Hawick schools in the early morning. Science also captured his attention. One afternoon while visiting Alexander Bell, professor of elocution and vocal physiology at Edinburgh, he met Alexander Graham Bell, the professor’s youngest son. Young Bell told Murray that he would like to know something about electricity. Murray immediately fashioned an electric battery and a voltaic pile out of halfpennies and disks of zinc. Later after Bell became famous, he referred to Murray as “the grandfather of the telephone.”

In 1862 Murray married. Two years later he accepted a post in London with the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China. He moved to London because he hoped the warmer southern climate would arrest his wife’s consumption. The change came too late for her, for she died in 1865, but it made a great difference in Murray’s own life as he entered a new, fecund intellectual climate. As James Murray epitomizes Samuel Smiles’s self-help philosophy, it is fitting that Caught in the Web of Words is a quintessential Victorian biography. Rich in texture and sense of place, the biography resembles a Dickens novel. In Dombey and Son, Dombey’s character was revealed by the appearance of his house. An outward, visible sign of Dombey’s inner being, the house resembled both tomb and prison and thereby showed Dombey to be spiritually dead and imprisoned by materialism. In discussing her “Grandfather Dictionary,” K. M. Elisabeth Murray similarly relies on the external to reveal the internal. Thus James Murray’s scrambling over the hills which surrounded his birthplace in the Teviot Valley becomes an emblem of a lifetime of climbing onward and upward. The book conveys a sense of the boot-leather toughness of Murray’s character and a sense of the sharp intellect which cut through obscurity like keen mountain air. Unfortunately, however, the inner man remains hidden. Instead of an individual, Murray appears as one of the army of eminent Victorians who pursued pilgrim’s progresses throughout the world, forever shouting “excelsior” and shouldering moral man’s burden. Although his first marriage was brief, Elisabeth Murray says little about it and springs it upon the reader with practically no warning. Of his second marriage, which produced eleven children, she is similarly reticent. One learns that Murray was a conscientious and devoted father, but one has no sense of the passion that must have burned through a man who lived so zestfully. Murray’s favorite text was a saying from Charles Kingsley, “Have thy tools ready, God will find thee work” hung on the wall of his bedroom. Like Kingsley, who wrote passionate love letters to his fiancee and who muscled limp latitudinarianism toward an elevated social duty, Murray was well-equipped with tools, not all of which were used in linguistic endeavors. Elisabeth Murray could not and should not have been a Tom Driberg pulling back the covers from Ruling Passions and exposing the “Map of Ireland” stained on the sheets, but one wishes that she had been less Dickensian and given the reader more of the inner man.

In 1866 James Murray applied for a post in the British Museum Library. He did not obtain it, but his letter of application revealed his remarkable learning. He wrote that he possessed “a general acquaintance with the languages & literatures of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes.” He said he had an intimate knowledge of Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin and “in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects.” With Dutch, German, Flemish, and Danish, he said that he was tolerably familiar. His studies of Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic were closer, he recounted, explaining that he had “prepared some works for publication upon these languages.” He added that he knew a little Celtic and was presently studying Russian. For the purposes of comparative philology, he knew Sanscrit and Achaemenian Cuneiform. He had sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read the Old Testament and Peshito, To a lesser degree, he added, he knew “Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phenician to the point where it was left by Gesenius.” A man of such incredible learning was soon dredged out of the bank. In 1868 James Murray was introduced to the Philological Society and became the friend of Frederick Furnivall, its secretary and leader. Until his death in 1910, Furnivall was to be a leading figure in Murray’s life, stimulating and persuasive but also meddlesome and exasperating. From the Philological Society, Murray’s acquaintance rippled outward. Furnivall enlisted him as an editor for the Early English Text Society, and for ten years, 1868—1878, Murray labored diligently and brilliantly, preparing himself for the dictionary years ahead.

In 1857 three members of the Philological Society, one of whom was Furnivall, began collecting words for a supplement to existing dictionaries. For more than 20 years, slips containing words and examples of usage were collected while the project changed shape, sputtered, and jerked awkwardly forward. In 1877 Henry Sweet approached the Delegates to the Oxford University Press and suggested the Press undertake a new dictionary with Murray, who was now an assistant master at the Mill Hill School, as editor. If Murray were later able to show that the way of words was often eccentric, negotiations with the Press were similarly wayward. Only in March 1879 was an agreement reached. It was envisioned that the project would take ten years to complete, cost nine thousand pounds, and fill seven thousand pages. Instead it took 54 years, cost 300 thousand pounds, and filled more than 16 thousand pages.

In accepting the editorship, Murray embarked on a journey which would absorb the rest of his life. Before him lay the immediate task of establishing the principles on which to raise the dictionary. Beyond that lay the disorder of the materials which the Philological Society had previously collected. In the distance loomed arduous struggles with the Press over the expense of the dictionary. Only in 1896 did the delegates realize that Murray was shaping the glory rather than the nightmare of the Press. Recruiting assistants, personal financial problems, and interminable hours lay seige to and continually battered Murray. Although he was often depressed and considered resigning, Murray never went under. Like the hero of an Horatio Alger novel, he drew on reserves of moral strength whenever he met a challenge and forged doggedly ahead. Murray was a great Victorian, and one wonders if he would have labored on with the dictionary until his death in 1915 if its completion had not been impossible.Caught in the Web of Words defines its hero through his work. Murray came from the same stringy Calvinist background as Thomas Carlyle. Like Carlyle he believed that work was noble. He realized, as Carlyle put it in Past and Present, that a life of ease was not for any man or any god. Like Carlyle, Murray believed work was “of a religious nature,” Interested in things concretely exterior rather than things obscurely interior, Murray followed Carlyle’s preaching. He got to know his work, did it, and never wasted energy attempting the impossible: knowing himself. The 35 years which Murray spent working on the Oxford English Dictionary were marked by sacrifice and pain. Yet it was this very suffering or ordeal which enobled; “blessed,” Carlyle wrote, was “he who has found his work.” Murray was a fortunate man. Like Ulysses, he smote the sounding furrows. Ulysses knew that the furrows would not long bear his mark and that he would never sail beyond the sunset. The particular tasks were, however, unimportant. What was significant was that he would bear the mark of the furrows and the glow of the sunset. Ulysses’s labors gave him an identity. Similarly Murray realized that his ordeal would forge an identity. The frontispiece of the biography depicts him with a book in one hand and a slip in the other standing in the Scriptorium, the walls of which were filled with thousands of pigeon holes, each of which contained innumerable slips of paper. Over an austere coat, Murray’s white beard hangs full and rich so that he resembles a hoary patriarch wise and all-knowing. Giles Gingerbread’s learning won him a coach and six. Learning did not obtain material goods for the Victorian Giles, Instead it provided an identity and immaterial success or blessedness.

The Oxford English Dictionary is James Murray’s monument. Ironically, however, this magnificent testimonial to Victorian earnestness does not teach the gospel of work. Its columns of meanings show that nothing is stable—not our words, ourselves, or our universe. The Oxford English Dictionary makes one conscious of style and brings pleasure in the word, not beyond the word. It teaches that words, not thoughts, are the medium of conscious life. Style, it shows, is more important than content, or if content is important, it is important only because words have created significance. In the beginning was the word, not the thought, and as the first cause, the word, changes meaning so man learns that all is evanescent. Joy in the word then becomes the creative spirit, and those societies which pride themselves upon possessing truth or upon stoic terseness are moribund. Thus celebration of fabled New England reticence is an emblematic worshipping of death. In a society in which gaps fill pauses in conversation and genteel silence smothers the conversational, only quasi-theological writers can thrive. In contrast to the white reticence of New England is the creative garrulity of the South. Words, frequently accompanied by a train of rich malaprops, rush to fill pauses in conversation. Style is more important than content; joy in the word flourishes; and literary creation blossoms brightly forth. James Murray would have had little time for such speculations. He would probably be more at home in New England today than in the South. Atop one of Vermont’s barren hills he could devote himself to an impossible task. Walks through forests stark with standing sticks would harden his moral fiber and strengthen him for work to come. Labor would never lead him to that greener imaginative land where flying fishes play and words come up like thunder shattering thought and elevating all to pleasure.


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