Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus
by Joshua Kendall

Would-be writers have long relied on thesauruses to provide a helpful leg-up when le mot juste hovers just beyond the tip of the tongue. Heavy thesaurus use, on the other hand, tends to be regarded as a crutch, and writers often treat their indulgence as a dirty little secret. With the current vogue toward descriptive minimalism, what’s more, overly florid prose is generally seen as a temptation to be resisted.

Kendall_The Man Who Made Lists_EDRevAmerican journalist Joshua Kendall has written a biography of the most famous—although not the first—thesaurus writer of all, Peter Mark Roget (pronounced Row-zhay, not Roggit). A London-born polymath who trained as a physician, Roget (1779-1869) was best known in his day for his well-respected treatises on the classification of plants and animals. He even laid the theoretical groundwork for the invention of the movies, having “discovered” the eye’s tendency to perceive a series of still images as being in motion. 

The Man Who Made Lists takes a decidedly lay approach to its subject, and opens with the dramatic scene of Roget’s suicidal uncle, the renowned British legislator Samuel Romilly, dying in his nephew’s arms. Although descended from a well-to-do family of mixed Huguenot and Genevan origin, Roget largely had to make his own way in the world as a result of his mother’s widowhood, something that left her emotionally and financially dependent on him. 

Remarkably, Roget began the lengthy word lists that eventually evolved into the thesaurus as an eight-year-old boy, although the book’s first edition was not published until he was 73. (Despite many untimely deaths in his family, Roget lived to the ripe old age of 90). Kendall speculates that obsessive list-making provided the young Roget with a sense of order in a dour household dominated by the early death of his father by tuberculosis. He even suggests Roget’s lifelong habit may have helped keep the depression and madness that plagued his family at bay (his mother, sister and daughter were all victims). 

Ironically (or not), Roget’s early drafts were created to compensate for his own shortcomings as a writer. A man who wholeheartedly embraced the faith in progress that was a hallmark of the Victorian era, Roget conceived of his thesaurus not simply as a book of synonyms, but as a system of classification that would contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Genius aside, Kendall portrays Roget as a socially awkward, emotionally obtuse intellectual fixated on cleanliness and order who would, in today’s psychological parlance, likely be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder bordering on autism. Roget saw the theatre, for example, “not so much as human dramas replete with emotional significance but as concatenations of words.” Although a previous biography of Roget exists, Kendall says he wrote this one in response to the surfacing, in 1992, of previously unseen writings of Roget himself, amongst them the thesaurus’ first draft.

Unsurprisingly, Roget had difficulty making friends but apparently had decent success with the ladies. He had a number of romances, and, after the death of his beloved wife, took up with his children’s governess until her own death many years later. 

One of the book’s most captivating episodes outlines how a twenty-four-year-old Roget narrowly avoided becoming Napoleon’s prisoner while acting as a paid chaperone to two teenaged boys on a grand tour of Europe. (To foster the boys’ appreciation of Paris he had them make inventory lists of its attractions. Oh dear.) Roget escaped his fate by claiming Genevan citizenship just as troops were scooping up British nationals. He was helped along the way by some friends in high places, including the “captivating” author Madame De Staël, with whom he apparently partook of some “earthly pleasures.”

Kendall’s writing is uneven, but his strength is evoking the fascinating intellectual milieu of Roget’s era. William Blake’s father ran a haberdashery on the Soho street of Roget’s childhood, while his mother was a neighbour to the young Mozart when the latter lived in London. Roget was acquainted with most of the intellectual luminaries of the age and was a founder of the Royal Society of Medicine. Despite his many groundbreaking achievements, Roget was nevertheless a profound conservative who could not tolerate radical ideas of any kind, including those espoused in the French Revolution and, later, the theories of the young Charles Darwin. 

Despite efforts to convince us of Roget’s charisma, Kendall never quite manages to make the case for him as a compelling historical personality. And his attempts at dialogue reconstruction and psychological sleuthing often come off as stilted. It’s hard to see Roget as anything other than a brilliant, but repressed, automaton; a cold fish, as it were. This is, after all, a man who conceived of his “autobiography” as a list — something Kendall has substantially improved upon here.

— Emily Donaldson