The Professor and the Madman, Reviewed by Michele

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In his book “The Professor and the Madman”, Simon Winchester sets off to narrate how the Oxford English Dictionary was firstly conceived and then realized. As the title hints, the author constructs his book around the lives of two men who had a particularly relevant role in the development of the project: namely, James Murray, who was the first editor of the Dictionary (the Professor), and William Minor, an American surgeon who, whilst confined in an asylum after having perpetrated a murder as a result of his delusional state of mind, became one of the Dictionary’s most prolific contributors (the Madman). Thus, Winchester’s book begins with the murder of George Merret, Minor’s victim, then develops by providing the biographies of the two ‘main characters’ and an account of the evolution of the Oxford English Dictionary, from its conceptualization to its completion, and lastly narrates the final years of the most important agents involved in the Dictionary’s development. Even whilst following such a structure, Winchester makes numerous digressions throughout the book, arguably in order to provide a context for his narrative. Thus, for example, in Chapter 6, he intertwines the description of Minor’s life inside the Broadmoor asylum with a short story of the institution itself[1], or quickly covers the evolution of the Philological society in chapter 4[2].

Nonetheless, while at first glance “The Professor and the Madman” seems to based on solid empirical grounds, a closer analysis reveals how various methodological shortcomings seriously undermine its claim to provide a throughout reliable historical inquiry. Arguably, the main problem with Winchester’s approach could be understood through Hayden White’s conception of the role of narrative within historical discourse. Thus, White claims that “historians interpret their materials… by the choice of a plot-structure, which gives to their narratives a recognizable form… by the choice of a paradigm of explanation, which gives to their arguments a specific shape, thrust, and mode of articulation”[3]. Winchester superficially adheres to such a paradigm, inasmuch as, if we want to follow White’s own nomenclature[4], its narrative could be said to be plotted as a tragedy and explained through a contextualist approach. On the other hand, White makes clear that an historical account must “deal in real rather than… imaginary events”[5], and it could be argued that here lies Winchester’s fault. While, as the author himself elucidates by the end of the book, it is undeniable that his narration was partly based on empirical data such as the Broadmoor asylum’s “voluminous files that have long been kept on all patients”[6], it can be said that he makes no effort in distinguishing such sources from evidence that he has seemingly gathered (it is hard to tell with certainty) from personal accounts or reports of rumours. In other words, even leaving aside the imaginative descriptions that Winchester occasionally provides (such as the account of Merret’s murder, which offers an improbable amount of details that could hardly have been known by the author)[7], he fails to properly interpret his own sources by presenting all his facts as true regardless of the origin, de facto blurring the line between real and imaginary events.

Thus, for example, Winchester narrates how, on the day of the murder, “the night was clear and starlit” and Merret’s “breath was visible in the cold night air—or maybe he was just puffing on his pipe”[8]. Such a narration is clearly imaginative: how would Winchester know such things, as they seem unlikely to have been reported by anybody? Nonetheless, as such details are only functional in embellishing the narration, they do not really detract from the validity of the historical inquiry. However, the author fails to specify whether he is providing such ‘improvements’ not only in cases where it might appear rather obvious (such as the latter), but also when the process of distinguishing the empirical evidence from the author’s imagination becomes trickier. Thus, for example, while introducing Minor’s biography in the book, Winchester offers a description of Ceylon as “a kind of postlapsarian treasure island, where every sensual gift of the tropics is available, both to reward temptation and to beguile and charm”[9]. As the author’s account seems to have Orientalist undertones, the question about his source becomes all the more interesting. Moreover, the information is again presented as a fact, while the account seems to be imaginative. Thus, it can be argued that Winchester based his own description of the island on an unknown source and at the same time failed to properly contextualize the source itself. In this light, it seems that he is not able to interpret the data in the way that White deems essential for the historical narrative.

In this fashion then, one fundamental problem arises with the book: how are we to trust anything that the author says? It is certain that some of Winchester’s accounts are factual within the book, but how can they be discerned from the others when he does not seem able to make the distinction himself? By presenting every piece of evidence that he gathered without any criticism whatsoever about its origin or context, it can be argued that Winchester has seriously undermined the credibility of his book as a whole. Hence, for example, can we believe that Trench insisted on the importance of historical principles and sources (which makes for an ironic situation as the author does not employ such methods himself) while conceptualizing the Dictionary[10]? Or that Minor converted one of his “two rooms into a library, with a writing desk, a couple of chairs, and floor-to-ceiling teak bookshelves”[11]? To what extent are such accounts factual? In this light, it can be said that Winchester’s work does not really provide a reliable understanding of the events that it tries to narrate inasmuch as the lack of proper methodology prevents any account that might be relevant from standing out.


[1] Winchester, Simon, The professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), 118.

[2] Ibid., 78-79.

[3] White, Hayden, Interpretation in History, (New Literary History 4, no. 2, 1973), 304.

[4] Ibid., 307.

[5] White, Hayden, The content of the form: narrative discourse and historical representation, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 5.

[6] Winchester, The professor and the madman, 233.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 106.

[11] Ibid., 123.

2 responses to “The Professor and the Madman, Reviewed by Michele”

  1. Marian says:

    Hi Michele, and thanks for this review! I myself considered doing my piece on the book, because of the flaws you pointed out. It seemed like an ideal choice for a criticism of popular history. I’m glad I didn’t do it, though; we would have arrived to basically the same conclusions.
    On the other hand, it seemed to me that Winchester has the firm to intention to provide as much context and explain to the best of his capabilities the context behind the creation and making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Do you agree that it is this same intention which led to him to accept more information and “facts” than a scholar would? Also, what did you think about his treatment of the sources? Did that impede the way you read the book?
    Furthermore, I would be interested to know what you thought of the book’s view of the dictionary itself. You talked about the narrativity: how do you think it impeded on the methodology? Is Winchester trying to show or explain anything about the dictionary itself… I’ve been thinking about it, and would like to know what you think.
    Finally, it seemed to me that, despite all of its flaws, which you accutely pointed out, Winchester’s work at least presented an interesting opportunity for us undergraduates to look deeper into the creation on the Dictionary and discover which fact is true and which information isn’t. We at least have that.
    Again, thank you so much for a great read!

    • Michele says:

      Hi Marian, sorry for the late reply! I actually thought that, while Winchester was indeed willing to provide the context, he accepted more fact simply because he was not able himself to make a distinction between the sources or to employ a certain degree of skepticism that some information would have required, given that he is not a trained historian. Nonetheless, I have no evidence for this, it’s just a hunch. On the other hand, once I made myself clear that I had to be careful about what I trusted from the text, I believe that I could sort of understand what information came from the more trustworthy sources. For example, I feel that the description of the ‘Madman’s life in prison (I forgot his name) would be somehow accurate, as he had access to the official logs of the prison. On the other hand, it was nearly impossible to determine the provenience of other infos, which seemed sketchy at best , as he did not quote anything. But once I made such distinction for myself, I was actually able to extrapolate some useful context from the book. Also, he found his writing style quite catchy, despite his methodological shortcomings, and the read was quite enjoyable even if not completely useful. I hope you read this and thanks for the comment!

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