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Noah Webster and the Sharon Literary Club

By Brandon Lisi, Curator

It was Monday, October 1st, 1781, at a session of the Sharon Literary Club, the first literary society in American history.

Chairman of the club was Cotton Mather Smith, the town’s pastor. The minutes were kept by his teenage son John (who, three decades later, would become Connecticut’s 23rd governor). His beautiful 21-year-old daughter, Juliana, was editor of the club’s magazine.

During the meeting, the parson’s study, parlor, and kitchen were crowded with almost a hundred attendees, all sitting huddled around a large fire as the latest issue of the club’s magazine was read aloud.

As the session wore to a close, the final speaker stepped forth: Noah Webster, the famed lexicographer whose name still graces the cover of Webster’s dictionary. At that time, the relatively-unknown Webster ran a small private school in Parson Smith’s attic, teaching both men and women in “reading, writing, geography, music, mathematics, Latin, and Greek.”

Portrait of Noah Webster (1833) by James Herring (d. 1867). NPG.67.31, National Portrait Gallery Collection.
Photo of “Weatherstone” in 1982. Located on 58 South Main Street in Sharon, Connecticut, The home is also known as the “Governor Smith Mansion.” Noah Webster ran a small private school in the attic of Weatherstone for a brief period between 1781 and 1782. Photographic print. 2005.01.52 Sharon Historical Society & Museum Archives.

At the club meeting that night, he recited his latest essay to the crowd, never taking his eyes off Juliana while doing so. Webster had found a woman who reflected every one of his passions and values. She was a woman of letters, a writer as well as an editor. For a man who would dedicate his life to words, there could scarcely be a better match.

Alas, she did not share his feelings.

In the following months, Noah asked her hand in marriage. Juliana declined.

Of Webster, Juliana wrote in a letter to her brother, “In conversation, [Mr. Webster] is even duller than in writing, if that be possible.” Though she did add, “but he is a painstaking man and a hard student. Papa says he will make his mark.”

And so he would. It is not clear why Noah Webster closed his successful private academy in Sharon, though historians speculate that his broken heart played a role.

Webster’s Speller and Dictionary would have a profound impact on the language that all Americans use today, and the parson’s prediction would prove correct.

Perhaps Webster’s heartbreak in Sharon served to motivate him to greatness.

As a Saturday Evening Post writer would remark in 1883, “Unlike most disappointed swains, he did not turn to puerile poetry for relief. It took a whole dictionary to express his feelings.”

Sources and Further Reading:

Kendall, Joshua C. “Spelling the New Nation.” In The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, 59–64. New York, NY: Berkley Pub Group, 2012.
Smith, Helen Evertson. Colonial Days and Ways, as Gathered from Family Papers. Ungar, 1966.

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