The Hart Chart

Michael Adams

Histories of lexicography usually focus on influential dictionaries and those who made them. Rarely do we focus on historical users of dictionaries or the public reception of dictionaries. One can look at such things systematically, of course, coding mentions of dictionaries in the press, for instance, and characterizing reception on the basis of such data. One can also look at individual users and see how they figure in the history of lexicography but also, since users are citizens passing through social activity besides lexicography, how the use and reception of dictionaries resonates in larger historical and cultural domains.

Laurance H. Hart was, as his obituary in The Central New Jersey Home News (November 28, 1964) observed, “one of [Metuchen, New Jersey’s] most colorful citizens.” With decades of further hindsight, that seems an understatement. A civil engineer with a degree from The Ohio State University, Hart had helped construct and maintain the New York State Barge Canal, but he also sold encyclopedias in Michigan and later became an insurance agent. He organized the Ohio ball celebrating the election of Warren G. Harding as president of the United States; he was president of The Ohio State University Alumni Association. From 1931 forward, he also impersonated George Washington in more than 4,000 events in 32 states, from kindergarten classrooms to the Harvard Faculty Club, on radio, on television, at the New York World’s Fair.

Hart also set up as a critic of encyclopedias, atlases, and dictionaries, producing what came to be known as “Hart Charts” [for an example, see Hart Chart Whole (1) at end of article]. According to Neil Gallagher, in an article titled “Like Washington, Hart Believes in Truth,” in The Central New Jersey Home News (February 21, 1962), he started with encyclopedias in 1929, with dictionaries following in 1947. Apparently, the last printing of the 1962 chart appeared in 1964, as reproduced here.

The Hart Chart organized a lot of dictionary data, as you can see: price, weight, size, number of pages, lines of text, number of illustrations, and then rather peremptory judgments about matters of inclusion; the effectiveness of etymologies and pronunciations and typography; treatment of synonyms, slang, foreign phrases; with summary judgments under the heading “Other Strong Points.” A brief description in a review of “Pamphlets” in The English Journal (June 1951), put it this way: “A graphic comparison of the relative merits and shortcomings of reference works — standard and substandard. The author’s personal recommendations may be disputed, but the facts on which individuals may base their own opinions are on the charts.” It’s hard to reconcile the Washington impersonator with the self-described “Lexiconoclast,” but people are complicated and so is the history of lexicography.

One can’t help but admire the Hart Chart’s precision and marvel at the pertinacity of someone without a vested interest in dictionaries and their making to pay such close attention to them, year after year, as a public service. But one also detects self-promotion in the chart’s upper right corner — “4000 Appearances as GEORGE WASHINGTON dramatizing Washington’s own original words” — and besides his dictionary verdicts, he was willing to pass some on American English — “The ‘SCHWA.’ I protest against slovenly abuse of the SCHWA (“ǝ”) to relax, reduce, enfeeble, dull and confuse sounds of unaccented vowels” — and to impart general wisdom — “The name “WEBSTER” is no longer under copyright, so both good and bad books use it” — though the issue is one of trademark not copyright. You can learn a lot about English dictionaries and the language they record and analyze by browsing a Hart Chart.

 At least once, Hart’s reputation brought him into the mainstream of news. George W. Cornell interviewed him for an article titled “‘Controversial’ is the word for defining Webster’s Third” in the Asbury Park Press (February 26, 1962), and he was not on the new dictionary’s side: “They have legitimized a lot of vulgarisms and colloquialism. Up to now, Webster’s was looked on as ‘a judge,’ he said, adding: “In court it could be said that Webster’s said so and so and we knew it was so. Now they have a[b]dicated their great responsibilities and opened the floodgates … This edition should appeal [to those] who read comics and tabloids, enjoy TV, etc. — but not to those who are ambitious, careful, and studious.” He wrote and self-published a review of Webster’s Third, dated March 15, 1962, to send out with the Hart Charts [see Hart M3 review complete at end of article]. He closed with this admonition: “I have received 50 reviews from newspapers and magazines. Only three are enthusiastic. Too bad! for the book has so many great merits. Meantime, keep your King James Bible; your 11th Britannica; and your 2nd edition of Merriam.”

That, of course, from a man with many dictionaries at his disposal. No Dwight MacDonald or Wilson Follett, Hart doesn’t appear in standard works on Webster’s Third, like Herbert C. Morton’s The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics (Cambridge UP, 1994) or David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (Harper, 2012); nor does Cornell’s article appear among those reprinted by James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt in Dictionaries and That Dictionary: A Casebook on the Aims of Lexicographers and the Targets of Reviewers (Scott, Foresman, 1962), though the advice to hold on the Second Edition comes up there once or twice. Hart’s perspective adds a dimension to the controversy, however, especially because he took the middle ground — he’s closer to the elusive man in the street than many other commentators.

In his review of Webster’s Third for Consumer Reports (October 1963), Allen Walker Read also took a balanced view, from a somewhat loftier perch than Hart, and he concluded similarly, though more expansively: “With these and all other changes in mind, what about the suggestion that one ought to continue to use the Second Edition of the Merriam-Webster in preference to the Third? Here we must take into account that a person enjoys a dictionary that he is familiar with and whose form he knows by heart. One who has used the Second Edition feels a wrench changing to the Third. Perhaps the changeover should be made gradually. Eventually, though, it will have to be made, for in the long run the needs of the 1960s will not be met by a book of 1934. The arguments for continuing with the 1934 edition apply, at least in principle, just as well to the 1909 edition. In fact, I recently browsed in that edition and found that it has an uncluttered, serene air that made me long for a simpler era. But the 1960s are with us. If you own the edition of 1934, do not throw it away, as it is chockful of fine material; but if you wish to buy a new dictionary, you will be better served by the Third.” Not identical, Read and Hart were nonetheless two peas in the same pod, neither doctrinaire prescriptivists nor descriptivists. Indeed, Read subsequently noticed Hart and his charts in his review of “Desk dictionaries” for Consumer Reports (November 1963).

He had Hart in mind. A letter from Read to Hart (September 27, 1963) mentions Hart’s original contact, when he sent Read a copy of that year’s Hart Chart on October 4, 1957: “As this is not a money maker,” Hart wrote across the top of the chart, “but a public service, perhaps you would suggest how to improve it. Compliments on your Bowker article,” by which he meant Read’s “American dictionaries of the English language” in Books from the USA of the same year. In the intervening years, Hart sent occasional propaganda — compilations of praise, indications of hostility from publishers whose reference works he criticized, evidence of the American Library Association’s disdain for the charts, a profile by Don Ross in the New York Herald-Tribune books section (February 15, 1962), and of course, a couple of Hart Charts — until Read reconnected in that September 27 letter and enclosed a proof of the upcoming Consumer Reports article and other items. Read was a capable self-promoter, too. On September 11, 1964, Hart thanked Read for sending them: “Your dictionary articles in Consumer Reports […] have been very helpful — much admired. Your very kind footnote about my chart […] is much appreciated. Inquiries are still coming in.” Then he asked, “May I ‘sit in’ on one of your classes?”

Read’s response was immediate and enthusiastic. On September 19, 1964, he would write, “I always enjoy getting and reading your material. You are welcome to come to any classes of mine that you choose. Whatever the regulations say, you can come as a ‘personal friend.’ I think of you in that fashion, because both of us, I believe, have one question that is central to our outlook: What are the FACTS?” But he wouldn’t attend classes as merely a personal friend — Read arranged something more generous, something that reflected professional respect: “[I]n order to regularize your position, I went over to the office of the Graduate Dean and arranged for you to hold the status of ‘Visiting Scholar’ for the year 1964–65.” He enclosed a list of topics for the sessions of his only course that fall, “The English Language in America.” That next February, he would start teaching another, “Problems in English Usage.”

Hart wrote to the Graduate Dean’s office as follows, on October 13: “Prof. Allen Walker Read has invited me to sit in on his class [Tuesday or Thursday] 5.40 to 6.30 P.M., if I have a ‘visiting scholar’ badge from you. Can this card be secured by mail? If not, what time does your office close? – so that I can take care of it on the same day. References; – my brother is your Prof. Albert G. Hart, economics. Reference librarians everywhere know me. So do all publishers of Encyclopedias and dictionaries. Some of them hate me thoroughly.” He sent Read a copy of the letter, with marginal annotations, including, “All of your topics interest me. I assume one day is as good as another for you. ALA’s RQ magazine expects soon to print my seven p. mss “How to make a Comparison of Dictionaries” [sic].

I wish we could find that article, to see more clearly the intentions and methods behind Hart’s charts. I checked RQ and discovered Louis Shores’ memorial article, “Hart Chart Publisher Dies” (March 1965). Lots of librarians and publishers were against Hart, Shores — who was dean of the library school at Florida State University — acknowledged, but “the Hart Chart became a force for high standards in reference book production and distribution. And those of us who knew him will sadly reflect that part of our personal and professional life for which sentiment and affection have steadily grown has now departed.” RQ quietly killed Hart’s article without much sentiment or affection.

Whether Hart ever made it to one of Read’s classes is unclear. Before he wrote his letter to the Graduate Dean’s office, he mailed a card to Read asking for a map of the university, so that he could find his way around, which Read noted he received on October 1. By mid-October, Hart’s time was running out. He wrote in a mailer dated August 25, “Several friends, including doctors, are pleading with me: ‘Take it easy, “Lex”! Five years ago you had two strokes; now you have been five weeks in the hospital with a heart attack.’” On the left corner of the copy he sent to Read, he scribbled, “nice, seeing your name so frequently.” Next to his inquiry to the Graduate Dean’s office about arranging his “Visiting Scholar” card by mail, he explained to Read, “Two trips would be a hardship.” I hope he made the one trip.

For all his eccentricities, among which we might count producing Hart Charts during his spare time, Hart gives voice to those whose views on lexicography we too rarely hear. After Read contacted Hart about the Consumer Reports articles, Hart reflected, in a reply dated November 12, 1963, “Much of what you say is new to me; for our angles of approach are so different. I am NOT a scholar. I am the man in the street; the “USER.”*[see footnote at end] In the Hart Charts, he spoke on behalf of all the other users who deserved to know which available dictionaries best suited their needs, which were worth buying and which weren’t worth the money. The charts focused and amplified what we’ve come to call the “user perspective” in mid-twentieth-century America. He may not be an important figure in the history of lexicography, but the charts and his relationship with Read sketch a figure worth knowing about, nonetheless.

Speculative history: Had Hart lived for another decade or so, he’d have joined DSNA. He was a social person, a former encyclopedia salesman, Elk, Mason, active alumnus of The Ohio State University. Read would have urged him to join. The American Library Association refused to publish advertisements for the Hart Charts, but Ed Gates would have sold space to Hart — perhaps even given it to him — in the DSNA Newsletter. He might have presented his seven-page paper on “How to make a comparison of dictionaries” at one of the early conferences; it might have been published in one of the early conference proceedings, or, if he lived long enough, Dictionaries. Among the lexicographers, librarians, academics, and collectors who mostly made up the membership of DSNA in the early years, he could have championed the users he defended from low lexicographical standards with the charts.

Interestingly, he wouldn’t have been the only civil engineer in the society. Henry G. Burger, who conceived, compiled, published, and distributed The Wordtree (1984) — “A transitive cladistic for solving physical & social problems. The dictionary that analyzes a quarter-million word-listings by their processes, branches them binarily to pinpoint the concepts, thus sequentially tracing causes to their effects, to produce a handbook of physical and social engineering™” — had a lot in common with the lexiconoclastic Hart and was a charter member of the society. Had Hart lived until he was 97, had he continued to produce the dictionary Hart Charts until then, he eventually might have evaluated The Wordtree.

Their importance in the history that happened, however, rests less on the systems they built or opinions they offered almost free-of-charge than their advocacy and evangelism. They were important because they engaged intelligently and earnestly with the value of words and the books that explain them.

* Allen Walker Read’s papers are held in the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Manuscript Collection. All items quoted or referred to except this last letter may be found in Read, Allen Walker (1906–2002), Papers, 1835–2002 (C4033), f. 1535; the final item can be found in the same papers, f. 802. I am grateful to Laura Jolley, assistant director in charge of the Manuscripts Collection, for her help in locating these items during the COVID–19-era shutdown. 

PDFs of Hart Chart and MW3 Hart Chart