J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Alexander Cruden: an early case of Asperger Syndrome?

I read Alexander the Corrector, by Julia Keay, many months ago, and don’t have a copy available. So I might not remember some details, but the book itself isn’t really the focus of this posting.

Alexander Cruden (1699-1770) was a Scottish-born scholar who moved to London and became a proofreader and moral scold. His great achievement was a complete concordance of the Bible; his one-man production proved even more authoritative for the next century and and half than Johnson’s dictionary.

The Notable Names Database entry on Cruden restates the understanding of the man’s difficult life that’s prevailed since the first book about him, by a sympathetic colleague in the London publishing world:

He took the degree of master of arts, but soon after began to show signs of insanity owing to a disappointment in love.
Specifically, according to his earliest biographer, Cruden was shocked to find that a young woman he fancied had been impregnated by her brother. Because he was locked up as insane shortly after this shock, the authorities were quick to lock him up again later in life, Keay argues.

Keay does some fine genealogical and bibliographical detective work to identify that young woman. She was Elizabeth Blackwell (1700-1758), who became a prominent botanical artist in London. The British Library offers a very elaborate way to view her magnum opus online through its Turning the Pages program; look under “Classic of Botanical Illustration.” Here are some prints of her work for sale.

As this biography of Blackwell states, she was long thought to have been born Elizabeth Blachrie, and to have married her cousin Alexander. Keay assembles the evidence that the artist’s maiden name was Blackwell, and her “husband” was actually her younger brother; Keay deduces that their brother Thomas impregnated Elizabeth, thus forcing her to leave Scotland and set up in London with Alexander. Cruden knew the family first in Scotland, then ran into Elizabeth again by surprise in London, and finally left a small bequest to her daughter Christina. Keay suggests that the Blackwells forced Cruden’s first confinement to prevent their dreadful family secret from getting out.

I suspect that biographers are still missing the true nature of Cruden’s condition, however. As The New Statesman’s review of Keay’s book said:
Keay never fully explains how Cruden managed to produce his immense book all by himself at the same time as holding down the job of bookseller to the queen and then proof-reader. He must have had a mind like a human search engine, coupled with incurable logorrhoea. . . . What made Cruden so single-minded? Why did he dare take on a task similar to Samuel Johnson's dictionary but with none of Johnson's resources? And how on earth did he pull it off? The odd banal judgement such as “Alexander Cruden was a deeply religious man” does little to clear up matters.

At the end of this engaging book, I was left wishing that, instead of spending quite so much time protesting Cruden’s sanity, Keay had done more to unravel the brilliant product of this strange mind.
There are really four mysteries to Cruden, not just the reason for his first confinement. There is, as this reviewer says, the question of why he was so good at this type of detail-oriented work. Not only was his Bible concordance a monumental task in a pre-digital age, but, the NNDB says, “several editions of Greek and Latin classics are said to have owed their accuracy to his care.”

We must also ask why throughout his life sympathetic people intermittently thought Cruden needed to be locked up for his own good. As NNDB goes on to say:
In spite of his earnest and self-denying piety, and his exceptional intellectual powers, he developed idiosyncrasies, and his life was marred by a harmless but ridiculous egotism, which so nearly bordered on insanity that his friends sometimes thought it necessary to have him confined.
Finally, there’s the question of why Cruden had such difficulty dealing with people, from refusing to recognize the Earl of Derby’s dismissal from employment as final to not realizing when Cambridge students were making a game of him. Elizabeth Blackwell wasn’t the only woman he seems to have been infatuated with; in at least one other case, his inappropriate behavior toward a woman led to his being locked up. Cruden never married.

I think the answer to all those mysteries is that Alexander Cruden had what we now term Asperger Syndrome. Though that condition has been recognized in the medical literature only since 1944, some people have probably had it (or something like it) throughout history. Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support offers this description of the condition:
Persons with AS show marked deficiencies in social skills, have difficulties with transitions or changes and prefer sameness. They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest. They have a great deal of difficulty reading nonverbal cues (body language) and very often the individual with AS has difficulty determining proper body space. . . .

By definition, those with AS have a normal IQ and many individuals (although not all), exhibit exceptional skill or talent in a specific area. Because of their high degree of functionality and their naiveté, those with AS are often viewed as eccentric or odd and can easily become victims of teasing and bullying.

While language development seems, on the surface, normal, individuals with AS often have deficits in pragmatics and prosody. Vocabularies may be extraordinarily rich and some children sound like “little professors.” However, persons with AS can be extremely literal and have difficulty using language in a social context.
A lot of that description seems to apply to Alexander Cruden. He was exceptionally intelligent, obsessed with Biblical language, and so socially inept that throughout his life many people judged him to be insane. He was probably “high functioning,” in modern terms, and well born enough to benefit from a top education and some of the deference offered to gentlemen. But never in his adult life did he think or act like most other people.

Historians shy from applying modern diagnoses to people of the past, especially recent psychiatric labels. Many medical and psychological notions have turned out to be reflections of their cultures. Obviously we can’t check Cruden against the criteria for Asperger Syndrome in the DSM IV or other modern references.

Nevertheless, in the case of Asperger Syndrome and some other neurological conditions, I suspect that historians will come to treat them (or refined understandings of them) in much the same way we now discuss physiological conditions and diseases. We don’t discuss smallpox epidemics in the eighteenth century without applying what we know about viruses. Similarly, we won’t discuss mental difficulties without considering what we know about congenital brain conditions.

As I wrote in connection to early American hermitess Sarah Bishop, biographers have often sought to explain a person’s unusual behavior as a response to a traumatic event. We want a reason for someone to act oddly. But sometimes people act unusually because they’re born thinking and seeing the world in unusual ways. The same qualities that might make a man excellent at Biblical concordance might also make him terrible at social interaction. In the case of Alexander Cruden, the sad tale of Elizabeth Blackwell probably had little or nothing to do with his odd behavior.


Anonymous said...

I find your presentation of A. Cruden's possible case of Asperger Syndrome as very interesting. Having spent hundreds of hours with my own personal copy of his Concordance (before digital and computers) I have always been fascinated by his accuracy. I have heard he died just shortly after completing this life-long pursuit. Is this true?
Thank you for a fine article.

J. L. Bell said...

It would have been poetic for Cruden to die (like Dante) just after completing his magnum opus. But in fact he first published his Concordance in 1737 and lived until 1770. The positive side of that sequence is that Cruden was recognized and rewarded for his work in his lifetime.