Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson by Kevin J. Hayes. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. 752 pages.

While I was visiting my aunt in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, she suggested a road trip: first, to Luray Caverns, then down Skyline Drive to a town where we’d stay overnight, then over to Charlottesville for the triple play of Monticello, Michie Tavern (lunch), and Ash Lawn. Off we went, stopping in Charlottesville first at the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center. It was at the center that I first started falling in love with founding father and American sphinx Thomas Jefferson. Here and at Monticello, Jefferson’s inventive mind and hands-on applications are revealed in a variety of ways, including the oddities he imagined and the nails he made.

In The Road to Monticello, Kevin J. Hayes explores that Enlightenment mind set through the books Jefferson read, acquired, and cherished and through his writings, from personal letters to his major works, from his “Head and Heart” letter to Maria Cosway to the Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. The biography is more or less chronological, from his early life under the tutelage of George Wythe, during which he developed his interests in law and languages, to his design for his epitaph and his death on July 4, 1826—followed five and one-half hours later by that of friend and foe John Adams.

Hayes covers Jefferson’s many advanced interests and everything that can be known or conjectured about his library, his passion for books as objects, his political and religious beliefs, his travels, his family and friends, and the influences and experiences that informed his views and convictions. By the end, Hayes seems to have created that which he set out to: a comprehensive portrayal of Jefferson’s life and mind gleaned from his books and intellectual pursuits.

Hayes falls short in two areas, one of which he concedes at the beginning. Like Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson was keenly aware that he would become a historical figure and that future Americans would pore over his words and life story. Adams and Franklin wrote their letters and messages accordingly, knowing that they would become part of posterity. Adams in particular seems to have held little back; both wanted to be understood. In contrast, Jefferson worked to efface his personal life and feelings from the record. The “Head and Heart” dialogue, and the form in which it’s written, reveal Jefferson’s discomfort with emotions as well as his apparently inability to express them directly. Perhaps he found this frustrating; “Head” poses a hyperbolic argument against forming attachments, but “Heart,” according to Hayes, gets in the last word and “rejects the pleasures of solitude and upholds the value of friendship.”

The second problem is Hayes’ lack of objectivity and the skewed picture that results. While he lavishes attention on such details as the backgrounds of the booksellers from whom Jefferson acquired his books, he mentions little that is controversial or negative about Jefferson. He glosses over his attitude toward his slaves and his refusal to free them, his relationship with Sally Hemings, his proclivity for overspending, and the financial straits in which he left his family. The uninformed reader won’t learn from Hayes about the unapologetic Jefferson’s secret collaboration with Benjamin Franklin Bache to smear John Adams’ character or how deep was the bitterness that grew between the two men. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought they merely disagreed on some key issues, become estranged over them, and reconciled late in life. Jefferson’s duplicity and manipulations are as protected from public view as he would have wished them to be.

The Road to Monticello is a solid if lopsided biography that delivers part of its promise, a glimpse into the life and mind of Thomas Jefferson, but only in idealizing soft focus. His heart and soul are missing, and so are the negative traits that round out his character and make him more than just an Enlightenment thinker; they make him a human being as flawed as the rest of the species. You can’t go wrong reading The Road to Monticello; knowledge of the breadth and depth of Jefferson’s readings and interests alone will expand your mind and thought process. But you would do yourself—and, dare I say it, Jefferson—a real disservice if you stopped here and didn’t dig deeper to explore the darker aspects of his enigmatic nature. For all its length and the research behind it, The Road to Monticello is just a detailed sketch. Supplement it with a full portrait, shade and shadows included.

Copyright © 2011 by Diane L. Schirf
Friday, 11 March 2011

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