The Man Who Made Lists:
Love, Death, Madness, and
the Creation of "Roget's Thesaurus"
By Joshua Kendall
Putnam, 297 pp.,
Peter Mark Roget, the 19th-century British polymath whose famous compilation of synonyms was for decades a part of every writer's bookshelf, seems like the worst subject imaginable for a biography. In "The Man Who Made Lists," Boston journalist Joshua Kendall does his best to enliven his subject, but Roget's life could often be described with one of the following synonyms from a 1998 version of his thesaurus: "boring," "uninteresting," "vapid," "vacuous," "prosaic."
Starting at age 8, Roget would compile lists of words, an obsession that became a lifelong method of bringing order to his sometimes-chaotic world. Kendall views Roget's habit of list making as "the primary means by which he preserved his own sanity" in dealing with "the early death of his father and the emotional instability of his mother." Alas, since Roget himself seemed preternaturally unable to express his own emotions, Kendall's attempts at psychoanalyzing his inner life often seem as untethered as balloons drifting into the sky.
Kendall's efforts to depict Roget's romantic life are both sad and funny. As a successful doctor, Roget should have been a great catch in Jane Austen-era England, but his skills at wooing left much to be desired. Kendall recounts how one woman was initially attracted to the young doctor, describing him as "superior to most men" (which sounds a bit lukewarm). But she soon found herself bemoaning Roget's "want of ardour," a lack that "weighs with a deadly weight upon my feelings and produces a forced revulsion."
Roget ultimately did marry; his bride, Mary Hobson, appreciated his aloofness, which apparently rivaled that of a glacier. Kendall does his best to explain Roget's attraction to Mary, but romantics may be underwhelmed: Roget "was delighted to have found a woman happy to spend the evening taking an algebra lesson from him." OK, he was no Don Juan, but he sure could impress the ladies with those linear equations.
Kendall tries to insert some international intrigue into Roget's life. When Roget was staying in Geneva in 1803, he nearly found himself detained by a French government about to go to war against Great Britain. Roget escaped across the border, but Kendall's efforts to make this episode seem like a mano-a-mano confrontation between Napoleon Bonaparte and Roget don't quite work. Kendall tells us that during "Roget's extended nightmare" trying to return home, he "feared that Napoleon had somehow tracked him down." Readers may be left wondering whether capturing a less-than-dangerous British list maker was atop Bonaparte's to-do list.
Roget is best known for his famous "Thesaurus," which has sold almost 40 million copies, but Kendall isn't able to shed much light on how Roget worked out the details of his project. The first draft, we're told, was written in 1805, and the work - which contained exactly 1,000 headings - finally saw publication in 1852, but we learn little about Roget's process of composition or how his magnum opus changed over those 47 years. Unlike Samuel Johnson, Kendall notes, whose famous dictionary was a collaborative effort, Roget worked alone.
As for Roget's goals, the author is (for once) fortunate to have Roget's own words, from his thesaurus's introduction: "My object . . . is not to regulate the use of words, but simply to supply and to suggest such as may be wanted on occasion, leaving the proper selection entirely to the discretion and taste of the employer."
Even Kendall is forced to admit that Roget lacked insight about himself. In attempting to overcome the limitations of his subject, he has given himself a Herculean task that would leave any biographer frustrated.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.