The scene is a mysterious one, beguiling, thrilling, and, if you didn’t know better, perhaps even a bit menacing. According to the time-enhanced version of the story, it opens on an afternoon in the late fall of 1965, when without warning, a number of identical dark-green vans suddenly appear and sweep out from a parking lot in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. One by one they drive swiftly out onto the city streets. At first they huddle together as a convoy. It takes them only a scant few minutes to reach the outskirts—Madison in the sixties was not very big, a bureaucratic and academic omnium-gatherum of a Midwestern city about half the size of today. There is then a brief halt, some cursory consultation of maps, and the cars begin to part ways. All of this first group of cars head off to the south. As they part, the riders wave their farewells, whereupon each member of this curious small squadron officially commences his long outbound adventure—toward a clutch of carefully selected small towns, some of them hundreds and even thousands of miles away. These first few cars are bound to cities situated in the more obscure corners of Florida, Oklahoma, and Alabama. Other cars that would follow later then went off to yet more cities and towns scattered evenly across every corner of every mainland state in America. The scene as the cars leave Madison is dreamy and tinted with romance, especially seen at the remove of nearly fifty years. Certainly nothing about it would seem to have anything remotely to do with the thankless drudgery of lexicography. But it had everything to do with the business, not of illicit love, interstate crime, or the secret movement of monies, but of dictionary making.
more from Simon Winchester at Lapham’s Quarterly here.