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Lilly Library

The All-American Spelling Bee

Madeline Kripke’s collection is famous as a collection of dictionaries and related works, so it comes as a surprise to find fiction in some of the boxes we’re unpacking. Nonfiction of various kinds is less surprising. The collection includes books on Roma culture, for instance, as background to Roma dictionaries and dictionaries of slang in which Roma language is implicated — the subject of a previous post on this blog. It also includes books like Roy L. Smith’s Don’t Kid Yourself!, also the subject of a previous post. Well, then, why not a story about spelling reform by American writer Owen Wister (1860–1938)?

When I was young, every American knew about Wister’s novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902). Some of us had read the print classic, but others watched the television show (1962–71) or one of the six film versions. But Wister was not a one-book-wonder. He wrote a lot, including many short stories, one of them titled “How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee,” published in 1907 as a free-standing book, each page of which centered a pencil-width block of text among very wide margins. Madeline Kripke collected a copy, but one asks, given her interests, why? She loved true crime, not Westerns, and she didn’t approve of exterminating native peoples or other consequences of Manifest Destiny. Owen Wister was not her kind of author.

How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee is told by Thomas Greenberry, whose work compiling an index for his forthcoming book is distracted by circulars from Masticator B. Fellows, president and “proprietor” of Chickle University. (Chickle is a synonym for ‘chewing gum,’ the source of Fellows’ fortune.) “At the age of seventy-five,” we’re told, “with uncounted millions, and ten United States Senators, and a fourth young wife all in his pocket, he proposed to hand his name to Immortality by simplifying the spelling of English all over the earth,” a pretty big subject for such a small book.

Greenberry is invited, along with several other colorful characters, to attend a convention on spelling reform — “the Higher Spelling” — at Chickle University. One of those along for the ride is Professor Willows, a Southerner whose dialect is represented consistently, if not quite accurately. He’s on the side of reform and declares that “it’s high time we-all took a whirl at the dictionary,” a reference that aligns the story with Madeline’s interests in such books after all.

Book cover showing five people in suits and academic dress

Most of the book reports speeches by the various experts brought to the convention about which spellings to simplify. They hail from various corners of America, and their dialectal speech suggests the impossibility of consensus, so the convention naturally breaks down without much result, except that two of those attending, Jesse Willows and Gertrude Appleby, elope from the convention. Their marriage is announced as “Simple Spellers Wed.” Greenberry returns to his index. A meager summary, I realize, but perhaps it will save you from reading the book yourself.

Besides the challenge to dictionaries mentioned above, what would induce Madeline to include How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee in her collection? Of course, spelling reform and dictionaries have been tangled up from the beginning, at least in America — Noah Webster advocated simple spelling for decades. That advocacy overlapped with his work on A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) and An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), both also in the Kripke Collection.

That would be reason enough, I suppose, yet there may have been another influence. Madeline’s longtime friend, Allen Walker Read, had published an article about “The Spelling Bee: A Linguistic Institution of the American Folk,” in the Publications of the Modern Language Association (1941). How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee obviously trades on spelling bees, but except for a ditty performed by Masticator B. Fellows — “My spelling ‘tis of thee/Sweet land of spelling-bee/Of thee I sing” — bees aren’t mentioned in the story. The parody of “My country ‘tis of thee” underscores the connection Read saw between spelling bees and specifically American social and linguistic behavior. Read does cite other fictional spelling bees,  but not Wister’s, so either he wasn’t aware of Wister’s book, or he found little of interest in it. Madeline may have acquired the book at Read’s suggestion, or she may simply have associated the title of Wister’s book with her friend’s interests. Sometimes, collecting gets personal.

Wister’s book raises another interesting theme of collecting, because the Lilly Library already owns a copy of it — why should the library collect a second copy? Were the copy of Wister’s book filled with paratexts like those in Madeline’s copy of The Canting Academy (the subject of a preceding post), one could justify a second copy on that added value. But Madeline’s copy of How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee is run-of-the-mill and so perhaps superfluous. With storage space at a premium, perhaps two copies is too many.

But the Lilly needs both copies, because they were collected for different reasons and speak to different audiences, even though they’re the same book. The Lilly had acquired How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee in the first place because it has a large collection of American literature and Americana, and it was reasonable, then, to hold all of Wister’s books, if possible. Madeline acquired Wister’s book because it represents historical problems of language planning — spelling reform — and language attitudes enacted in the spelling bees held across America every year for centuries. No historian of America at the turn of the twentieth century would expect Wister to have written a book about spelling reform, and they’d learn about it by finding it in the Lilly among the Americana. Scholars of language wouldn’t look to Wister for a book about spelling reform either, but they would find it in a catalogue of the Kripke Collection — they wouldn’t think of reading through the Lilly’s general catalogue for a book they didn’t know even existed. Two copies ensure that everyone who needs to read Wister’s withering take on spelling reform finds it.

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