The Road To Monticello: The Life And Mind Of Thomas Jefferson

While reading it, I was constantly contrasting its view of Jefferson with that in Friends Divided.

The short version is that Road takes a significantly more positive view of Jefferson. Friends was overwhelmingly complimentary, but with notable moments of, dare I say, snark. Jefferson was sometimes portrayed in that one as a bit fatuous and image obsessed and even slightly shallow, especially in comparison to the earnest and earthy Adams. Both, interestingly, more or less skip over Jefferson’s presidency.

Road glossed over the eight years of Jefferson’s presidency because he was mostly busy with business of being president and the book is an intellectual history of Jefferson. More specifically, it is a bibliographic history of the third president, focusing on not just what he was writing, but on what he was reading. The immense research into his book buying, reading, and library contents is staggering. Others might find it boring, but not me.

Even more than in Friends, the treatment of Sally Hemmings is disconcerting. I was particularly struck by a moment when the book talked about James Hemmings coming with Jefferson to Paris and then noting that his sister, Sally, came, too. James gets mentioned quite a bit, but Sally, hardly at all and the absence feels jarring. How can you talk so much about James Hemmings and not mention the relationship and children Jefferson had with Sally? I’m sure that the author wanted to get back quickly to the particular subject of his sort of biography, but it just feels… weird.

Friends several times noted that Jefferson did not read novels (unlike Adams; the book had a slight bias against the third president, I felt, and even this felt like an attempt to imply that he didn’t have much of an inner life) and Road once, towards the end. But Road also repeatedly stressed his great love of… what for it… the novels of Lawrence Sterne! Yes, that’s right! Tom loved Tristram Shandy! For some reason, I got a kick out of that.

If there is one thing that this book will do, it will make you want to move into a house on a Virginia mountain or hill and fill up a large library and read all day long.

Advertisements