Love, Death, Madness, and an American Biography

I've recently finished reading The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus, a biography of Mark Roget by the Boston-based writer Joshua Kendall. You have to love that title.

The book made for a pacy read - partly because of Kendall's writing, partly because of Roget's surprisingly eventful life.

In his twenties, for example, Roget was staying in French-occupied Geneva when war broke out between France and England; Napoleon ordered the imprisonment of British nationals, turning Roget into a détenu. Only by first declaring himself a citizen of Geneva and then... oh, but I won't spoil it for you.

Instead, what I'd like to blog about is the experience of being an Englishman reading the biography of a famous Englishman written by a writer who is (I assume) an American writing primarily for an American readership. Phew!

For example, Kendall has to explain some things that the average Brit would know, such as the meaning of 'Mancunians':

Perhaps that’s why so many Mancunians (the Latin-derived term for Manchester citizens) gravitated towards the teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism

Of course, I can't criticise him for this. I did, however (and perhaps unaccountably) find some of his Americanisms jarring - especially this use of 'write':

From Cornwall, she wrote Mrs. Reid, “We three get on capitally together. I am sure Kate is already better and enjoying all enthusiastically."

Kendall also uses the least formal style I've ever come across in a biography. For example:

On Saturday, July 16, 1803, Roget learned that the French weren’t kidding. After several weeks of issuing threats, they had finally stepped up their aggression toward all foreign nationals.


Roget was also overwhelmed with anger. He couldn’t believe that a Frenchman was forcing him out of the city where his father had been born. A Frenchman was kicking him out of Switzerland!

I don't know if this is how American biographers usually write, but I found it surprising. To be fair, Kendall does admit in his acknowledgements:

This book is not meant to be a scholarly biography. Though all the scenes are based on actual events, in several instances, where primary source material was lacking, I offered my best approximation of specific details.

So The Man Who Made Lists is, if you like, the TV re-enactment of the biography world: Crimewatch with added classification.

I might even send it on to Apus to see what he makes of it.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if that use of 'write' is an Americanism - as an American, I find it unusual, but that might just be me. I would use 'write to,' although now that I think about it that whole quote seems slightly awkward in a few minor ways. Not incorrect, just awkward.

Stan said...

As far as I know, the transitive "write someone" is standard in U.S. English but rare in British English. It used to be more common in Br.E., but is now generally seen only when followed by another direct object, e.g. "write someone a letter".

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Write" with only the recipient and no "to" is extremely standard in the US. It parallels "told" - you can write someone or something, just as you can tell someone or something. You can write/tell someone something. You can also use a preposition: something to someone, or someone about something. But either argument can stand alone and very often does.

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Write me when you get work" is a jocular farewell, by the way. Can you use it with an adverbial like that? Or would it have to be "Write to me..."