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This poignant biography of H.W. Fowler appears on the 75th anniversary of the publication of his Modern English Usage, a work revered by writers everywhere.
Based on meticulous research into previously unpublished letters and the Oxford University Press archives, this book brings to life a complex yet fascinating man. McMorris explores the dogged work and the flurry of controversy and critical contention surrounding Fowler's work on The King's English and Modern English Usage. But McMorris also illuminates Fowler the man, who helped raise seven siblings, abandoned a prestigious post as schoolmaster to write in a cottage by the sea, and found true love and a devoted marriage at 50. Though considered a god among lexicographers, Fowler was self-deprecating to the point of sending money back to Oxford University Press when he felt he had been overpaid. And he coped calmly in the face of tragedy, writing cheerful letters days after losing an eye, and energetically nursing his wife through a fatal illness.
Painstakingly thorough and delightfully readable, The Warden of English takes us inside the world of early twentieth-century literary publishing, as it chronicles the life of a giant of lexicography.
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Following in the footsteps of The Professor and the Madman, a bestselling account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (who appropriately provides an introduction here), Oxford University Press archivist Jenny McMorris profiles the human being behind another benchmark reference book. Though hardly as colorful as Winchester's "madman" (a convicted murderer who provided many of the OED's entries), Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) penned a cogent guide, Modern English Usage, so closely associated with his own forceful views on correct, idiomatic language that most of its numerous users don't bother with the title and simply refer to it as "Fowler." Greatly esteemed by writers and still frequently consulted 75 years after its initial publication, Modern English Usage was a labor of love for Fowler, a brilliant lexicographer who had the unusual gift of making such esoteric matters as syntax and split infinitives both accessible and entertaining to the general public. He was not, by all accounts, a particularly inspiring teacher during the 17 years he labored conscientiously as a Yorkshire schoolmaster, but once Fowler moved to the island of Guernsey and took up freelance writing he proved to have a gift for educating people in print. He emerges in the lengthy excerpts from the letters that McMorris has the good sense to quote as a charming, witty man, not at all the dusty scholar one might expect to produce (with younger brother Frank) books bearing titles like The King's English and The Concise Oxford Dictionary. McMorris's own no-frills prose suffers somewhat by comparison with her subject's, but her conscientious résumé of Fowler's long and productive life will engage readers who want a behind-the-scenes peek at the book publishing industry. --Wendy SmithAbout the Author:
Jenny McMorris is the Archivist for the Oxford English Dictionaries at Oxford University Press.
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