California Literary Review

The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall

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March 11th, 2008 at 5:15 pm

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The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall
The Man Who Made Lists
by Joshua Kendall
Putnam Adult, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Words, words, words…

Peter Mark Roget was that eclectic genius who succeeded in revolutionizing the use of our language. And with the publication of his Thesaurus, his name literally became a household word for just about anybody who has ever attempted its proper use in speech or print. Despite this, his person and his long innovative life have remained relatively obscure to most of us. Now Joshua Kendall’s biography, tracing an intricate career and vividly depicting the early development of this extraordinary, quirky mind, should change that picture.

Not unlike Dr. Johnson a century before him, who had given us one of the several earliest of our English dictionaries, he was plagued in childhood by great loneliness and turned inward for all his life. Roget lost his father before his fifth year; from that early hour he faced a widowed, near-demented mother who depended upon her son for her support. She concentrated upon assuring for her fatherless boy a brilliant future. No wonder this youngster should seek distraction from early on!

Yet oddly enough, it was that habit of escape for all of his lifetime, mainly through a compulsive obsession with making lists of everything he saw around him and categorizing each and every object that caught his eye or mind into abstractions that resulted in his creation of order in a chaotic world. And much like his predecessor, Dr. Johnson, in such diversions, he could relieve himself of pervasive anxiety, physical awkwardness, even facial tics.

The price was heavy for young Roget. Instead of experiencing his own times, or engaging with his contemporaries and the world of people and events , he persisted in observing from afar, all the while cataloging their movement and expression of thought. In fact, many years after, when Samuel Butler made his canny observation that “life was like music: it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not by rule, “ he might have been summarizing Roget’s own approach to his life.

Peter Mark Roget had been born in London in 1779 to a Hugenot French father who had come to London but a few years before to take over as pastor at a Protestant church in that city, Le Quarre on Little Dean Street. It was one of twenty such Hugenot churches newly scattered about London during the period. His mother, Catherine Romilly, came from an established London family, Hugenot, influential and well-connected . Noteworthy, however, was that by the time of the boy’s birth four years later, and clearly, as assurance to his ambitious mother, it was at St. James’ Anglican Church (designed by Sir Christopher Wren) that their infant was christened.

Alas, the happy prospects of the young couple were dashed soon enough when his father, because of a sudden inflammation of the lungs, which turned into a virulent case of tuberculosis that was to take his life, resigned his post and took his wife away to Switzerland. His was an attempt at restoration and recovery in the mountain air and it meant leaving their six-month old behind in the care of his grandfather, Peter Romilly. As a consequence, young Peter never knew his parents until he was two years old and sent for. While his grandfather could be affectionate, he was also quick to anger; and his maternal grandmother, subject to the family‘s persistent mental illnesses—and in her case, much exaggerated by the earlier death of six of her own children—remained out of the picture .

When he was reunited with his parents, even worse for the child was not displacement from London, but the short time he was to have left with a father he had barely come to recognize! Peter was soon to know the grief attending the death of Jean Roget.

Still more unnerving perhaps was the return to London with an unstable mother and anxious younger sister, Annette. Not only their grief and open fears of what they faced frightened the child, but also his mother’s overpowering ambition for him. Yet her determination to assure a future for her son would sustain. While ignoring her daughter, she was more than ever domineering to her son; she would mastermind his education and proper launching in the world.

To that end, she sent him to the best preparatory schools and colleges of that era, and then on to Edinburgh University for its superb medical school, where he could encounter the most promising professors in and around that then emerging profession. Together with her brother Samuel Romilly’s help, she gained access to the finest British minds of the day, the while fretting and fussing over the delicate state of his health. Still she never let up in this pursuit of opportunity for her promising son.

Catherine’s mothering was relentless. She and Annette had accompanied him to Edinburgh . Hardly an hour passed when she did not make some demand. One of Kendall’s descriptions of his life at the time there follows. During his first semester:

That morning Peter had gotten up at six as usual. The hour before breakfast was often his only chance to keep up with his Latin. At seven, he ate breakfast with his mother and sister. However, he kept staring at his Latin grammar book propped up on the table. Immersion in the nuances of Latin prose composition, he found, could sometimes spare him from the barrage of questions his mother was prone to send his way —— about his health and his sundry activities between classes.

So it went for all those years. Peter would make his escape by going off to the University nearby, or paying a visit with his new-found professor and mentor, Dugald Stewart, who suited his concerns in every particular. He was a frequent guest at that household, where he felt free to discuss the latest concepts of moral philosophy, discover new books and meet with other talented students who shared his interests.

The exciting thing for Roget was that Stewart was not only someone renowned and highly regarded—or the most influential person in his field of moral philosophy—but that his encyclopedic cast of mind was busy in various disciplines: mathematics, law, history and psychology. He was also greatly influenced by Adam Smith.

Best of it, was that Stewart was an organizer and synthesizer. And when Roget actually heard Stewart’s complaint in one lecture, his determination grew:

“As it is by language alone that we are rendered capable of general reasoning, one of the most valuable branches of logic is that which relates to the use of words. Too little attention has been bestowed on this subject.”

By the end of that lecture, Roget had concluded that one of the causes of “the slow progress of human knowledge” was “the imperfections of language, both as an instrument of thought and a medium of communication.” It was on that June morning that Dugald Stewart implanted in his disciple a mission which was to occupy him for the rest of his life.

As Roget summed it up some fifty years later in his introduction to his Thesaurus:

In every process of reasoning, language enters as an essential element. Words are the instruments by which we form all our abstractions, by which we fashion and embody our ideas, and by which we are enabled to glide along a series of premises and conclusions.

Through all his domestic toils and coils, Roget continued his medical studies. And soon his mother’s dire prophesies regarding his frail health were borne out. In the third and last year of his work in Edinburgh, he contracted typhoid fever shortly before he was due to graduate. Recovery came, but slowly, and the issue of passing his examinations and gaining his degree continued in question.

Peter Roget, as ever, rallied, managing regardless of his devastated condition to summon up his characteristic extra energy; he performed admirably, passed examinations and got the the degree, which enabled him to practice medicine.

He was not yet twenty years old, and in a state of near collapse. His uncle judged that he needed time for a full recovery, and suggested in any case, that he was too young to find a proper clientele. Said he, there were ”four or five years to fill up” before seeking to establish a practice on his own.

Among other aims during those years, the young man sought to break away from his mother’s continued presence. When she returned to London after his graduation, he stayed on in Scotland with friends and acquaintances, even trying out a medical post in Bristol, where he continued to meet such exciting innovators as Humphry Davy.

But his escape from domestic trammels came about through his Uncle Samuel’s rescue. Romilly found for him the opportunity to go abroad. Among his influential connections was a gentleman, John Phillips, who owned the largest cotton plant in Manchester and whom he had convinced that it was his nephew who should escort Phillip’s teenage sons to the Continent. Not only would that provide the two boys with a safe and wholesome escort, but it would serve to enlarge their education. At the same time, it would allow Peter to make a ‘Grand Tour” of Europe to expand his own horizon.

The year was 1802. Napoleon had proudly reopened France to the English, though in fact, that peaceful interval was hardly lasting. Even so, Peter faithfully tried to execute his task by showing the young men Paris and Geneva while helping them learn their French. He also tutored them in mathematics and science, and introduced them to his Uncle’s influential friends on the Continent. All proceeded as planned for some months as they traveled the great sites of the country. His young charges in tow, he watched the pageantry of the Napoleonic parade through Paris.

Soon enough, though, France was at war with England and Roget and the Phillips boys were caught. Roget’s efforts to protect his charges, to see them home to safety were valiant, since escape to England was already dangerous. He managed to get them across the Channel. This, while many other Englishmen, who did not act as swiftly as Roget were imprisoned and languished for years in wartime captivity.

After his harrowing experience, the young man, himself now safely back in England, went on to distinguish himself as a physician and scientist. And with the assistance once more of his generous uncle, he established first a free clinic to serve the indigent in North London, and then a practice of his own in London. Roget prospered in his native city during this period when London was being gloriously rebuilt by the Regent’s own architect, John Nash.

Marrying well, if late in life, Mary Hobson, a woman of great beauty, proved “everything he could have hoped for.” They had two children, Catherine Mary and John. Like his mother before him, he took great pains over their moral and intellectual development.

In 1832, after several happy years, he was faced with devastating news. Mary, now 38 years of age, suffered with cancer. Nor could her tumor be treated. By April of the next year, she was gone already.

Mary’s death left him desolated. After that, Roget began to think about his relationship to God and the next life. He dreamed of the time that he would have a “heavenly reunion” with his wife, a not uncommon hope, even reaction among scientists during the Victorian era (Charles Darwin entertained that fantasy after he lost his own wife).

Time and work conquered his grief. He went on to care for his children as well as to press forward both in medicine and in the other branches of knowledge so close to his heart.

Among his achievements was the Bridgewater Treatise which established his reputation as an important author. Many felt he would be remembered for this alone. As Kendall explains its importance:

Incorporating the research of countless specialists in zoology, physiology and anatomy, Roget had produced a work whose comprehensiveness was breathtaking.

Here he divided his treatise into four parts: Mechanical Functions, Vital Functions, Sensorial Functions and Reproductive Functions. This work gained him notice even on the other side of the Atlantic, where the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson praised it highly.

During this period he worked as well in optics with experiments that predated the development of the motion picture, pioneered an early form of the slide-rule, and even researched several primitive means of refrigeration.

Still, the masterwork, the capo lavoro of the complex life of Peter Mark Roget was yet to come. His Thesaurus, a version of which he had already designed by his 26th year, and which he had held in abeyance for many years once more became his goal. He took out and dusted off that 1805 draft to start again. This time, he studied those who worked before him: going back to Abbé Girard in the early part of the 18th Century, then on to others like George Crabb, Mrs Hester Piozzi and Richard Whately before re-working his version, It meant he was to pursue an entirely new direction in lexicography.

As Kendall describes it: “Unlike Girard and his successors, Roget aimed not to explain or prescribe the use of the words. Rather, he felt he just needed to list all the options.” Or as Roget himself said;

My object…is not to regulate the use of words, but simply to supply and to suggest such as may be wanted on occasion, leaving the proper selection entirely to the discretion and taste of the employer.

Roget’s achievement was certainly unique, and now the story of this troubled life and how he overcame his demons comes as pure revelation.

  • Abigail Johnston

    I am only on page 28, and am already exasperated by the way the author presents his information. Kendall badly needed an editor!

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