Friday, August 26, 2011

American Bee - James Maguire

Some people have an idea that correct spelling can be taught, and taught to anybody.  That is a mistake.  The spelling faculty is born in man, like poetry, music and art.  It is a gift; a talent.  People who have this talent in a high degree need only to see a word once in print and it is forever photographed upon their memory.  They cannot forget it.  People who haven't it must be content to spell more or less like thunder, and expect to splinter the dictionary wherever their orthographic lightning happens to strike.    
                                                         -Mark Twain- (American Bee, pp. 63-64)

American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds begins with a look at the last moments at the 2004 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.  Middle-schooler David Tidmarsh emerges as the champion with his correct spelling of "autochthonous".  Author James Maguire then shifts his focus to the history of the spelling bee in America.  Apparently the Puritans, who generally frowned on anything remotely enjoyable, gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to competitive spelling as recreation.  First known as "spelling parties", the name was adjusted to "spelling schools" to dispel the notion of fun.

Whatever the activity was called, it quickly caught on and as Americans traveled west, spelling schools, spelling matches, spelling fights and finally, spelling bees (the latter term came into vogue in 1870) went with them.  In 1871, spelling bees became a fad because of a popular novel called The Hoosier Schoolmaster by Edward Eggleston.  The title character uses his orthrographic skills to beat the best speller in town, but when he's pitted against a beautiful young girl, words literally fail him and he ends up falling in love during the match. (My own favorite incidence of spelling bees in literature -- not mentioned in this book --  is in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie when Pa "spells down" the whole town.)

Spelling bees were now an institution.  According to Maguire, in 1913, a spelling bee was organized between U.S. legislators and journalists.  You'd think that the press would have taken that one handily, but surprisingly, a representative from Ohio named Frank Willis hung in there to win.  In the 1920s, the first National Spelling Bee was staged and continues to the present day.  Surprisingly, in those early years, the winning words seemed to be on the easy side:  Gladiolus (1925) Knack (1932) and Therapy (1940).

In Part 3, Maguire profiles past champions from 1960 to 2004.  Jacques Bailly (1980) is now one of the "pronouncers" for the Bee.  Paige Kimble, another past winner, is one of the organizers.  Part 4 provides an amusing look at the English language and how its spelling got to be so weird.  The primary culprits are The Norman Invasion (1066) and The Great Vowel Shift (1500-1600s), but the event that put the skids to any kind of reason or logic in English spelling was colonization, which introduced thousands of foreign words into the language.  As Maguire puts it:

Today's modern speller, while cursing William the Conqueror for the French influence can also curse these land-hungry British leaders.  Curse Fletcher Christian and curse Captain Bligh.  Curse them all.  Then reach for your spell-check.  You'll need it.  (p. 158)

In Part 5 of American Bee, Maguire introduces readers to five contenders who most emphatically do not need spell-check:  Marshall Winchester, Kerry Close, Samir Patel, Jamie Ding and Aliya Deri.  Samir emerged victorious at the 2005 Spelling Bee (which Maguire covers in the final part, Part 6) and the very next year (I rushed to the National Bee website to look) another in this profiled group came back to win all the marbles for 2006.

Since I'm in Sedalia, Missouri right now, I have give a shout-out to the hometown contender for 2005, Megan Courtney, who missed "trichotillomania", (she only missed it by a single L) which means "an abnormal desire to pull out one's own hair."  How appropriate.

The sections of this book seem to have been written at long intervals and for different publications, so there is some annoying repetition (I got tired of Maguire constantly referring to what he obviously considers the spelling words from Hell, "rijsttafel" and "boeotian") that could have been avoided with more careful editing, but that's just a minor gripe.  I LOVED American Bee, and I put it right up there with my other favorite books about language, books and obsession like Stephan Fatsis' Word Freak (Scrabble players) and A Gentle Madness (bibliomania) by Nicholas Basbanes.


Jenny said...

This sounds great! I love spelling bees. Have you read Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount, Jr.? Another one for your list, if not; it's hugely enjoyable.

Kathleen said...

I was my 6th grade spelling bee champion and am still proud over 30 years later! This book sounds like a wonderful read!

Unruly Reader said...

This sounds like a great book! Probably I won't be able to read it, though, because I have nervous heebie-jeebies about spelling bees. *All that pressure!* Glad you gave such a great synopsis, so I can not-read it but still know about it.