Review: ‘Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years Of Thomas Jefferson’

img_5245My interest in Jefferson has always been in the workings of his mind and I am not sure this book did much to expand my understanding, in that regard.

Also, this is the second book I have read about Thomas Jefferson in the last several weeks that seems to give weight to arguments that doubt his fathering Sally Hemmings’ children. This is does so better, by describing the arguments against it, as if in good faith, but ultimately coming down on the side of, yes, Jefferson and Hemmings had a sexual relationship and he fathered several children with her. Frankly, right now, the issue (no pun intended) is so little in doubt that any effort to seriously recognize the other side is deeply fraught, because it is clear that racially motivated prejudices drive them (Jefferson, a proud and noble white man with unimpeachable intellectual and ethical credentials, could not have had a sexual relationship, which could never be truly consensual, with a black woman, however light skinned).

It is also a depressing book. The chronicle of a family’s decline into insolvency. Page after page of Jefferson’s extravagant spending, combined with loan upon loan (including sad sounding loans, like $100 from a local shopkeeper) and the occasional bad faith financial transaction (while acting with essentially power of attorney for a European friend’s property, he sold it and then loaned the proceeds to himself). Even his offer to sell his library to replenish the Library of Congress, which the British had burnt to ashes during the War of 1812, was driven in no insignificant part in order to get a hold on some cash to pay off some loans and show sufficient solvency so as to be able to ask for more credit. And did I mention that Crawford hints that, in his later years, Jefferson might have had an opium addiction? Yeah, it’s not a fun read, in many respects.

‘Severance’ By Ling Ma

Severance was well reviewed, and rightly so, but like most contemporary, literary novels, I always feel a slight sense of disappointment. It’s a very, very good novel, but it’s no classic for inclusion in the canon. Which is, of course, not a fair comparison, but one that I always go to. Perhaps why I read so much genre fiction. Less weight on the shoulders of reader and writer.

The obvious comparison here is to Station ElevenSeverance has more to say, but Station Eleven says it better. By which I mean that Na is not really writing any kind of science fiction novel. She is trying to make a point about modern life and the traps of routine and acceptance into which we fall. And she makes it well. Mostly.

The protagonist, Candace Chen, is a bit of tabula rasa, for good or ill. Only in the flashbacks to her childhood does she seem more fully realized, as a character.

But, this novel is about a global, airborne pandemic (albeit one spread by fungal spores). And features people wearing masks and empty office buildings. So… a little on the nose right now.

The Court Of Broken Knives

img_5217This was a difficult one to get into. A young, beautiful protagonist who is, at least initially, a member of a mercenary company that is only mostly shamelessly rips off Glen Cook’s Black Company (here, the unimaginatively named Free Company of the Sword), who happens to be a genetic sociopath. If there is a success here, it is in succeeding in duping the reader into thinking that – because he is good looking (yes, even when we can’t see the person, we are predisposed to think good looking people are better people) and is clearly set up as the protagonist – we are rooting for the good guy. Not that Spark doesn’t give us ample reason to mistrust that instinct (including pretty severe addiction problem – drugs and alcohol – that not infrequently has him puking all over himself).

About midway through, one character actually gives voice to that mistake, albeit inside her own head. Someone so beautiful must be good. And we are dragged along. It helps that the most mistrustful folks, the handful of members of the aforementioned Free Company who survive a bloodbath that takes place about one third of the way through, a portrayed as grimy, not very good looking, and very… human, in an icky and mortal way. So we don’t really trust them the way we do the good looking sociopath.

Admittedly, by around the final third, pretense has been dropped and the ‘hero’ is revealed as tramautized, sociopathic, man-child with never properly explained powers (he’s descended from some kind of god-like and also deranged hero of ancient legend).

I’m making this all sound more literary and successful than it is. Because it’s hard to feel super invested when you really don’t like anybody enough to care too much what happens to anybody and come to the conclusion that, with the exception of one (former) high priestess (who is too damsel-in-distress-y for my tastes), that the moral arc of the universe would be just fine if every significant character to whom the author introduced you were swallowed by a meth alligator.

Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff

My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.

Bloomsday Forgot

No, it’s not Bloomsday. I missed it.

I forgot about it. Which I do not normally do. In past years, I have been in strange rooms at midnight for marathon readings of Ulysses.

This year, it simply passed me by.

And yes, grappling with COVID and, perhaps more importantly, with racism (andyes, Black Lives Matter, and yes, All Lives Matter is racist in part because you never, ever used that phrase until people started saying Black Lives Matter), meant that I had other things on my mind. More important things, even.

But it passed. And that’s sad.

He is a member of the traditional, white, western canon, but he is also still one of the greatest English language authors in all history and we used to take one day a year to honor and. remember him and, as, if not more importantly, to make literature fun, vital, and experiential.

I won’t live forever, barring some kind of amazing medical advance and don’t know how many Bloomsdays I have ahead of me.

I hope that, at the very least, I remember the next one.

When It Is Written

This chapter in world history will be written and it will portray us, the United States of America, badly. Because we, as a country, compare so badly to a defined group of other, otherwise comparable (more or less developed, capitalist, and small ‘d’ democratic) countries. There are the countries that acted nationally and decisively and are on some kind of trajectory to make the virus a more or less negligible factor even in the absence of the vaccine; and there are countries like us who have flailed about and now sort of appear to have given up on doing anything about.

And this chapter will be written and it will be remembered because it makes for such a nice, clear narrative. Those that took action and succeeded, in some fashion, and those who did little, did it late, gave up early, and failed.

Historians like it when such bright lines exist.

Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth.

– Horace Walpole

A Guide To Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia

As it turns out, it’s the sort of glossy covered, trade paperback you would find (and probably do) at the gift shops of Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and elsewhere across Virginia (in fact, it helpfully provides the website addresses to such places, where mentioned). Not, perhaps, providing the sort of new information that I am looking for, having already read I don’t even remember anymore how many books and writings by and about Jefferson over the last two years or so.

But, to give it its due, a nice guide to places of importance to Jefferson. And going beyond Monticello to include places like the house of his legal mentor, George Wythe, and his retreat at Poplar Forest (for when the visitors at Monticello got to be too much). And a shallow, but still useful primer on architecture. I learned more about Andrea Palladio, from whom we get the term Palladian, including the title of his most famous book, which Jefferson apparently read and much enjoyed, I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). I also did not know that Jefferson designed a number of Virginia courthouses and also the houses of some of his friends.

Independent Bookshop Week


You can, at least, say that reading Ravelstein makes you want to read more about and by Alan Bloom, who the title character is a not even really disguised version thereof.

I have read little Bloom. And only one other Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift; it liked me not, and while it inspired me to read some Delmore Schwartz, his poems discouraged me from reading more).

But my suspicion is that the only improvement this novel makes on reading Bloom himself (or a proper biography) is that Ravelstein is a much better name, with its towering, gothic overtones. Bloom is too comically joycean to be a really good name anymore, at least on a man.

I furthermore suspect that I would have better, in general, reading neither Bloom nor Bellow, but simply revisiting Isiah Berlin and Leo Strauss.

The book gets even weaker when it drifts from Ravelstein. The narrator, who is, as you might guess, a Chicago writer with too many marriages in a relationship with a much younger woman (intelligent, but not too intelligent; pretty, but not too beautiful; caring; understanding; indeed, the very perfect fantasy young wife of an old man), is not as interesting as he thinks. He is not uninteresting, but a long stretch where he goes to vacation to Puerto Rico, eats a toxic fish, has to be flown back to the United States, hallucinates in the hospital, and nearly dies, is completely unnecessary. Mortality is a theme that runs all through the novel, but this was, as I said, unnecessary. I didn’t read Ravelstein to spend so much time with someone improbably named ‘Chick’ (I kept thinking of Chick Corea).

I first started reading this book in 2004. I remember reading it a bar in St. Petersburg where my friend sometimes worked. I had left a position at an environmental nonprofit because the head of the Florida was a insufferable fool and a bit of a sadist. She wanted my job and pretending to ask permission. I was trying to read a paperback copy of Ravelstein. I don’t know where that copy went or why I decided I had to make another go at it.