Essay / Misc.

Alexander the Corrector

The January 2007 issue of First Things is already available, and in the “Briefly Noted” section you’ll find my review of Alexander the Corrector, a book about Alexander Cruden of Cruden’s Concordance fame. The editors at First Things snipped a few words here and there to make it fit better, generally improving the review. If you don’t subscribe to First Things you’re missing a lot of great stuff. But since we’re among friends here, I’ll let you have a peek at the longer version of my review.

Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius who Unwrote the Bible. Julia Keay. Overlook, 288 pages, $23.95

When Cruden’s Concordance was first published in 1737 in London, it was immediately recognized as a revolutionary research tool. In the American colonies, Jonathan Edwards read a magazine ad that same year for a work “more useful than any book of this kind hitherto published,” and soon had his own copy. One man had undertaken this monumental task of indexing the entire Bible, and he had done it working for a dozen years, unassisted and uncompensated. That man, Alexander Cruden, was what we might today call focused and detail oriented. We might also call him eccentric or obsessive. In his lifetime he was interred in madhouses four times, and in subsequent biographies has developed a reputation for having been mad. The rumor is an easy one to spread: after all, only a crazy person would index the whole Bible so minutely.

Julia Keay now presents the case for the defense: Alexander Cruden was not mad, but the victim of cruel exploitation at the hands of enemies who found the madhouse the most secure place to keep an opponent. Alexander the Corrector is a belligerently sympathetic treatment of Cruden, attempting his complete exoneration. Keay provides a plausible reconstruction of the misadventures of this unusual man: Suffering from unrequited love and determined not to expose his beloved’s scandalous secret, Cruden was confined in the Aberdeen Tolhouse for several months as a young man. Unable to be ordained, he worked as a proofreader until he became the romantic rival of a villain who paid to have him locked in a private madhouse. After a shrewd midnight escape, Cruden unfortunately combined his own quest for exoneration with a quixotic crusade to prove “the absolute necessity of regulating Private Madhouses in a more effectual manner than at present.” This set him at odds with an entrenched status quo, and his inevitable defeats made him subject to depression, requiring further confinement in Bedlam itself. Finally, after another betrayal, Cruden decided to embrace his peculiar status and became a kind of public morals superhero, Alexander the Corrector.

Julia Keay writes deftly, and accomplishes a number of impressive investigative stunts too elaborate to recount briefly. She presents a generous dose of primary evidence, equipping the reader to develop an independent judgment about Cruden. The most compelling scenes are Cruden’s attempts at self defense before the medical and legal establishment. Eighteenth century England was committed to keeping the peace by marginalizing anyone with “too much religion” as an enthusiast. Cruden, who instinctively expressed himself in pious phraseology whenever his emotions were exercised, could only confirm that judgment each time he spoke. When the mad doctor Monro visited the madhouse and asked him his condition, Cruden replied that “he awaited God’s time for his deliverance.” Duly noting “enthusiast” on his chart, the doctor prescribed drugs, purging, and bleeding. Cruden was expressing his intent to submit to the powers that be, but the nominally Anglican doctor, tone deaf to the voice of warm faith, supposed him to be calling for an angelic force to free him. Monro would later come into similar conflict with the “enthusiasts” of the Wesleyan revivals, just as the private madhouse system would in fact be reformed, all too late for Cruden. Keay herself is not always sufficiently perceptive about religious motivations, and sometimes casts about for obtuse analogies to explain just why Cruden would think about the Bible so devoutly: “As the Quran to Muslims, so the Bible to Calvinists.” I cannot find in Keay a sympathetic familiarity with the passions and predilections of a concordance user, which would have equipped her to understand her beloved concordance maker even more.

Still, Alexander the Corrector is the best treatment this odd figure has ever received. While it is not quite a full biography, it does cast its net wide enough from the theme of “tormented genius” to bring in many facts of Cruden’s later life not widely known: how he indexed Paradise Lost, corrected Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and undertook works of mercy, generosity, and advocacy with heroic stubbornness. The book says nothing, after the ill conceived subtitle, about “unwriting the Bible.” It says a great deal about the strange fruit borne by Alexander Cruden, a devout scholarly servant of the word of God, “a mind in which reason tottered,” but was not, if Julia Keay is even half right contra earlier biographers, “entirely dethroned.”

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