Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Isaac Werner's Personality

As I was reading The Forgotten Founding Father, Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall, I could not help noticing how many of Webster's traits seemed present in Isaac Werner.  Like Webster, Isaac was insistent on doing things right and disgusted with others who seemed content with doing only what was necessary to get by.  Isaac was constantly buying equipment that he modified with improvements before he would be satisfied with its performance.  His journal entry of February 19, 1888 is one example:  "Over-hauled fanning mill mostly all over to get same into working order, never put together right."
In addition to striving to make things right for his own farming equipment and methods, Isaac expended ongoing efforts to assist others.  His January 29, 1888 journal entry is a good example of Isaac's desire to reach out to improve things for others:  "While eating my breakfast conceived the idea of some competent man to go through the country and inspect each 1/4 section of land, its Surface Soil & its subsoil and classify them by number or letters according to the predominating elements of soil.  Then implements could be devised to work most satisfactory just those different soils and that would afford a basis to work on and continue improving thereby soon elevate the standard of agriculture and saving large sums of money from being expended in useless tools."
Isaac was active in farming organizations, hoping that farmers could share their experiences, successes and failures, to improve farming techniques for everyone.  He became disgusted, however, with meetings that neglected the educational portion of the gathering to become merely social.  He was even more impatient when members failed to study the educational material made available to them.  He observed which farmers seemed willing to implement progressive ideas and invited them to join with him in a separate group.  His December 6, 1889 journal entry described:  "...first meeting, 4 of us, [Wm] Campbell, Frank Stimatze, Ferguson & I organized Albano Reform afford more privilege to discuss political matter outside Alliance." 

Isaac also initiated the formation of a County Reform Club, of which he was chosen President at the first meeting, but so little interest was shown by those attending the initial meeting and by others Isaac attempted to recruit that a second meeting was never held.  Isaac had more success in founding the Stafford County Agricultural Society, of which he served as the secretary.  Inevitably, Isaac was disappointed with the commitment of other members who failed to dependably attend meetings or to diligently work toward the goals of the organizations. 
Reading about Noah Webster and his failed newspapers and poorly attended lectures, but also his unflagging efforts to advance his political ideals and to create an American culture through common spelling, pronunciation and grammar could not help but make me think of Isaac.  When I shared my observations about Isaac with author Joshua Kendall through e-mail exchanges, he replied, "Isaac fits the type."  See Kendall's website at  
For a time, Noah Webster favored the idea of adopting phonetic spelling for the new American nation, an idea he later abandoned.  Isaac also flirted with the idea of phonetic spelling for the farmers' movement, believing it would make it easier for immigrants who were just learning English as their second language, as well as for English-speaking farmers who had never learned to read or write, to acquire the ability to read progressive newspapers and educational material.  In Isaac's January 30, 1891 journal entry he wrote:  "I most the day reviewing books and Shakespeare, where several publishers combined in London to issue first complete edition, and what reading that 1623 edition now is to us and our present mode of spelling obominable [sic] to what it may be in the near future with some proper effort."  (See 1-3-2013 blog, "The Spelling Bee" about irregular spelling.)
So, paraphrasing author Kendall's book subtitle, I asked myself, "Did Isaac Werner have an Obsession to Create a Superior American Farmer?"
A recent article in includes an interview with Joshua Kendall about not only Noah Webster but also about his new book, American Obsessives:  The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation, due to be released this summer.  Kendall told the interviewer, "The job of a biographer is to get inside of a subject's head.  I guess what fascinates me about obsessional types is that they are always pretty clear about what is on their minds."  You can read more about Kendall's new book at
My manuscript is both biography and history, Isaac at the center of the story of his community and the Progressive movement of the late 1800s.  Isaac's daily journal entrys from 1884-1891 certainly helped get me inside his head.
Webster's handwritten drafts of dictionary entries
The article in Psychnews explains that most of us have a mix of personality traits which vary in intensity.  Among those traits, a trait that is moderated can be useful, but if carried to the extreme may be disabling.  The very traits that led some to consider Noah Webster vain, arrogant, and self-promoting are the same traits that allowed him to undertake writing a speller that was used by American school children for nearly a century and produce a dictionary that took three decades to complete.  Webster's personality demanded sacrifices from his family and caused offence among his friends as he devoted his attention to the job at hand, neglecting most other things and the needs of others. 
One of the professionals Kendall consulted for his new book was John Oldham, M.D., co-author of The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love and Act the Way You Do, which explores ways traits that can be disabling in extreme cases can also be what makes a person successful when moderated.
To answer my own question, "Did Isaac show traits of obsessive-compulsive personality?" as a layman I believe he probably did.  But, more importantly, did he moderate those traits sufficiently to have a successful life?  Absolutely!  While the fact that he never married may have related to his personality, and he spent many days and nights alone with his reading and his projects, he also had some genuinely good friends.  He managed to create one of the most beautiful farms in the area and to free himself from indebtedness in difficult times, and he did a great many good things for his community that no one else would have had the drive to do.  Quoting Joshua Kendall's concluding words from the Psychnews interview, "Biographers are tempted to either slime their subjects or idealize them.  But people are so much more complex."  


The Blog Fodder said...

The Man who Made Lists is now on my to read list. thanks.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Dear Blog Fodder, Isn't it interesting that "Wealth of Nations" was one of the books Isaac bought for his library and read!