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Roget: The Man, the Mind, the Thesaurus

Without Peter Mark Roget, there would be no Visual Thesaurus — or any modern thesaurus for that matter. We now take it for granted, but it took a special type of mind to come up with a system for organizing and classifying words and their meanings, in a way that also organizes human knowledge itself. Roget, a nineteenth-century polymath who wrote treatises on everything from physiology to slide rules, certainly had the mind for it. But he also had a deeply troubled personal life, surrounded by mental illness and heartbreaking tragedy. Joshua Kendall has written a fitting tribute to this fascinating figure in his new biography, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus. We got to talk to Josh about the making of the book, and learned how his previous writing about psychology turned out to be an excellent preparation for exploring Roget's intricate mental world. Here is part one of our interview.

VT: What first set you off on this project? What got you interested in Roget and writing about his life?

JK: I've always been kind of a word nerd. I studied Latin and Greek in high school, and I've always loved language. I studied comparative literature at Yale and Johns Hopkins. But what really got me excited was the availability of some new documents. I had heard about an auction in 1992 in which Roget's great-grandson, John Roget, who was the keeper of the family flame, put up for sale about 20 documents. These included the 1805 manuscript [a 100-page draft that formed the basis for Roget's Thesaurus –Ed.] and his autobiographies. And I just got so excited because they just gave me the sense that I'd really be able to tell the story about what made him tick in a way that his last biographer hadn't, to be able to see more deeply into Roget the man and also see more deeply into the creation of the thesaurus itself.

VT: Those are documents that previous biographers didn't have access to?

JK: Right. Actually, both Roget's great-granddaughter and great-grandson helped the last biographer. But surprisingly, they held back these 20 documents. There was an auction at the Phillips (now Bonhams) Auction House in 1992, and then I got a copy of that catalog and started tracking down the documents at various archive libraries around the world. And when I found this new information, in many cases, I was actually touching it. I'd go to a library and actually have it right in front of me, and it was just so exciting.

VT: So you were able to use these documents to explore something of Roget's interior life?

JK: Yes. The last biography, which came out in 1970, mostly summarized his major scholarly contributions. And those, of course, were fascinating, things like his "slide rule" paper [a paper Roget wrote on the logarithmic scale that gave rise to the modern slide rule –Ed.] or the 1,000-page physiology tome that came out in the 1830s that Darwin sought to overturn. But there was just a piece missing in the biographical account. It was just a little wooden and the biographer just didn't have access to more, and that's what made it so exciting for me.

VT: Even with this unprecedented access, did you find it difficult to write about someone who seemed so private and might have had difficulty expressing himself? Did that make it especially challenging?

JK: Yes, that did make it challenging. He wrote two autobiographies, and both were basically lists. One was called "A List of Principal Events," and the other was an expanded version but was still in the form of a list. So Roget was your classic repressed Victorian who held everything in. He had a relationship with a woman named Jane Griffin before he married his wife. She leaves these copious diaries, where she's describing in lots of detail all these Jane Austen moments, where she sees Roget at a dance. And she describes exactly what she felt and how she was interpreting things. But there's no mention of her at all in his autobiographical list! So that made it very difficult. But I think there was enough, and I think that a lot of his behavior took on a symptomatic form, in terms of some of the obsessions and compulsions, and combined with information about where he was and what he did and a few hints of his emotional state, that did allow me to paint a more vivid picture.

VT: So in addition to your background in comparative literature, you have a background in psychology and psychiatry?

JK: Yes, as a journalist, I've done a lot of reporting on psychiatry. I co-wrote a book on brain development and child development. And I guess what excites me about psychiatry is the challenge of talking intelligently about people who are so-called "abnormal," and how to make sense of that behavior. I think that one of the challenges of writing on Roget was that there was some madness there in the family — like his uncle, Samuel Romilly, who slit his own throat — but trying to make sense of it. I think we live in a world where whenever people hear about mental illness, their immediate sense is, "Oh my God, give that person a pill — let's get rid of it." But what I was trying to do, based on my background in psychology, was really to try to describe some of these odd behaviors and make sense of it and to be compassionate.

I'm working on a follow-up book on Noah Webster. And the thing that I learned from working with Roget and now with Webster is that both of them were obsessive types. But they seemed to have found the perfect fit for their "obsessionality" with lexicography. Another way of putting it is that for a lot of people, the challenge of writing a dictionary might drive them crazy. Perhaps for both Roget and for Webster, these mammoth works may have prevented them from going crazy. They loved doing it and it gave meaning and purpose to their lives.

VT: In addition to Roget's obsessive-compulsive nature, you also talk about the chronic depression throughout his whole family.

JK: I was really surprised to find that. I first found it in his uncle Samuel Romilly's memoir, where he talks about Roget's grandmother being chronically mentally ill. She was an invalid most of her life. And without any formal diagnosis, one can suspect it was either chronic depression or schizophrenia. Romilly himself was moody and melancholy and then committed suicide. Roget's mother was chronically depressed and also just very indecisive. She was moving the family around constantly and was very unhappy. And Roget's sister was chronically depressed. And then there was his daughter. I found some amazing letters at the University College of London talking about his daughter's depression and about how she had a kind of religious mania.

Roget, in contrast to all these family members, lived a relatively normal and incredibly productive life. He did in his lifetime the work that would take other people two or three lifetimes. It's just amazing, the various disciplines in which he produced authoritative works. But in contrast to all these family members, he lived until 90, and led a vibrant and interesting life. I think part of it was finding a fit for his particular take on the world. And I think there's a lesson there, in the way that we tend to think today of mental illness, of how to get rid of it. But maybe the challenge for everyone, particularly those with some kind of mental disability is to find a way to make it work for them.

I have a piece in a recent Psychology Today where I talk about obsessionality. There are really two disorders. One is "obsessive-compulsive personality disorder" (OCPD) and the other is "obsessive-compulsive disorder" (OCD). People with OCD tend to be impaired, and I interviewed them for the story. People with OCD can spend three or four hours a day washing their hands because they're never clean enough or something. But people with a personality disorder like Roget and Webster — who like lists and order and have a strict moral sense — they can function at a very, very high level. They found the perfect kind of outlet for that take on the world. Unfortunately, people with a personality disorder can drive other people crazy, and I have a sense that both Roget and Webster were a little tough to live with.

Roget's daughter and his wife felt a little bit of that, although his wife seemed to accept a sort of teacher-student relationship, and she didn't mind his lecturing. Shortly after they got married, he was giving her an algebra lesson a couple times a week. I think he was a bit high-maintenance. But he did find what worked for him, and I think that's ultimately a very inspiring story.

VT: I was fascinated by how you traced that obsessionality, the compulsive list-making, all the way back to his childhood, back to a notebook that he began keeping when he was eight.

JK: Yes, I studied that carefully. And I think that's what is interesting about obsessionality. Freud made a lot of mistakes and a lot of things that he said were silly, but one thing that he said that was very intelligent is that obsessionality, as opposed to most other psychiatric disorders, is very consistent over the life span. And if people have it, they start very young. It certainly applied to Roget, in that he was just looking at the world in the same way, ever since he was a kid.

VT: What's also interesting about the psychological background of the thesaurus is that it was his way of organizing the world. You describe it as imposing order on chaos. In one sense it's a turn inwards to be doing this, and yet on the other hand he'd prefer not to think about himself but to create a world outside of himself.

JK: Right, it's kind of an escape from the self, but it's an escape from the self to create another more orderly world. He creates this other orderly world, but there are sort of these internal psychological pressures leading to what I term a kind of "paracosm" or alternative universe. And a thesaurus is an alternative universe — it's a map of the world. It's like he lived in this other world. And as long as he was there, he could escape some of the pain in his life. Something like his uncle's suicide — I mean, if you experience something like that, it just never goes away. Some of the baggage that he had to carry around with him was incredible. And I think he just found a way to escape by immersing himself in this other universe.

VT: You talk about some of the shortcomings of Roget's character: his inability to deal with people, even people he was very close to, his lack of a certain kind of imagination, how he had trouble observing and experiencing, preferring just to categorize and classify. But do you think that it could only be someone with those character traits who could have created a book like the Thesaurus, especially given that there was really no precedent for that kind of work? Did it take that particular kind of mind?

JK: Yes, I think he's a good fit. I think that other types of people could have created it, but there would be a difference. Even though Samuel Johnson also was an obsessional, there was a different sensibility. Samuel Johnson had more of a poetic sensibility — he was a great lover of Shakespeare and John Donne and English poetry. Roget, like Webster, had a more scientific mind. There were other people who could talk very intelligently about the use of words and the difference between one word and another. But I think Roget's unique contribution was the scientific taxonomy. The first half of his book is a classification into 1,000 concepts. He had this analytic mind that was very theoretical. And I think that this kind of scientific taxonomy was perfectly suited to his sensibility.

VT: And that sensibility also fit the age that he lived in. Coming out of the Enlightenment, there was a feeling that one could perfect knowledge by perfecting language, and that language was a mirror of the world that could be clarified as a way of instilling social progress. He was very much of that era.

JK: Right, classification was the intellectual soil of the era. When I was in graduate school, everyone wanted to write the great American novel. When Roget was in medical school, everyone fantasized about writing the ideal classification system. But Roget took it to an extreme and that classification was not only his intellectual framework, but also it dominated the way he looked at the world and even the way he related to other people.

(Next week we'll bring you part two of our interview with Joshua Kendall, looking at how Roget constructed his thesaurus and the book's lasting impact on our culture.)

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