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New Book From Michael Knox Beran:
Pathology of the Lies: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life

Books and Culture

Michael Knox Beran
Dukedom Large Enough
What Jefferson’s library reveals about America’s best-known bookworm
9 January 2009

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, by Kevin J. Hayes (Oxford, 738 pp., $34.95)

It is the fashion in America to produce, every generation or so, a new Jefferson. Lincoln saw in the author of the Declaration of Independence a sublime philosopher of liberty. Franklin Roosevelt, in his battles against “economic royalists,” invoked the statesman who deplored the financial policies of Alexander Hamilton. More recently, Americans have snickered at the slave-driving sexual predator of the Sally Hemings scandals. It is time for a fresh edition. Why not look in the library? In The Road to Monticello, Kevin J. Hayes brings to life Jefferson’s passionate devotion to books. “I labour grievously under the malady of Bibliomanie,” Jefferson wrote in 1789. Like the opiomane, the bibliomane is hooked on his drug, and it is amusing to find Jefferson, as an aging addict, pushing his habit on younger souls, ever eager to share with them the narcotic that eased his own path through life.

Hayes writes in the conviction that “literature is important in and of itself and that a literary life is a life worth living.” Not that he considers literary hours severable from the rest of one’s existence. On the contrary, Hayes shows how Jefferson’s interest in books and writing improved his domestic life, his friendships, his political labors, his architecture, and his work as a farmer and gardener. Jefferson did not shut himself up in a book-lined tower as Montaigne did. But he did spend a lot of time alone in his study. The challenge for any bibliographic Jefferson scholar is to pierce the veil that obscures the activity of the book-room, a place that Jefferson’s friend Margaret Bayard Smith thought “so sacred that I told him it was his sanctum sanctorum.”

How “he employed his hours of study,” Dr. Johnson said of Jonathan Swift, “has been enquired with hopeless curiosity. For who can give an account of another’s studies? Swift was not likely to admit any to his privacies, or to impart a minute account of his business or his leisure.” Jefferson was possibly even more secretive than Swift, and Hayes is too often reduced to supplying a sort of annotated catalog of the books he bought. He drops tantalizing hints that amount to little—arguing, for instance, that the Declaration of Independence was influenced by more than just legal and political works. “The influence of poets, devotional writers, and other belletrists on the Declaration cannot be ignored,” he claims. Yet other than his observation that Jefferson alluded, in the Declaration, to the poet James Thomson’s phrase “manly firmness,” Hayes never explains how this influence manifested itself.

If Jefferson’s literary vocation is difficult to penetrate, it is all too easy to exaggerate its scope. Hayes describes Jefferson’s instructions to Meriwether Lewis on the eve of his Western expedition with William Clark as his “Passage to India.” But while he praises the instructions’ “imaginative vision” as “stunning,” he fails to persuade the reader that the work is an instance of creative power on the order of Whitman’s poem or E. M. Forster’s novel. Hayes similarly exaggerates the merit of Jefferson’s version of the Gospels, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, which he thinks might be “the finest biography of Christ ever written.” It is true that Jefferson, in depicting Jesus as a “sage of nature,” anticipated Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus, but one has only to compare the two books to see how far short Jefferson falls of Renan’s standard.

Hayes also gives Jefferson too much credit for literary originality and artistic open-mindedness. He cites Jefferson’s “stirring words” in a 1799 letter: “As long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.” But the credit for stirring eloquence belongs to Tacitus, who in the introduction to his Histories said that he lived at a time when “you may think what you like and say what you think.” Again: the “presence of Retzsche’s Goethe in [Jefferson’s] library,” Hayes writes, “shows how opened-minded he was to new forms of art and literature.” The reader, however, is more likely to be conscious of the limitations of a sensibility on which some of the greatest writers of the age—Austen, Wordsworth, and Shelley, among others—seem to have made little impression.

Much of Jefferson’s literary passion was of the antiquarian variety. This species of intellectual taste has gone out of fashion, but it is not quite the pedantic foolery George Eliot made it seem in her portrait of Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch. What did “all this classical erudition,” as Hayes calls it, mean to Jefferson? One clue can be found in the way Jefferson will often render a Greek concept into English. He said of his friend Peyton Randolph that he was “cold and coy towards strangers, but of the sweetest affability when ripened into acquaintance. Of attic pleasantry in conversation, always good humored and conciliatory.” By “attic pleasantry” Jefferson means eutrapelia—wit, liveliness, politeness in conversation. This “attic” standard was always his beau idéal of discourse. As a student in colonial Williamsburg, he had been drawn into a little community of sympathetic scholarship that he afterward characterized in Athenian terms: “They were,” he said, “truly Attic societies.” The Greek qualities of his literary imagination are evident, too, in his vision of a time when, “under our democratic stimulants,” every American “is potentially an athlete in body and an Aristotle in mind.” This is precisely the Greek ideal of kalogathia—beauty and excellence of mind and body—an idea that, though originally aristocratic, became in time the ideal of democratic Athens.

Jefferson alluded to the Greeks and Romans not only in his writing, but also in his architecture. Derivative pedantry? Servile tribute to the cultural supremacy of the Old World? Not quite. Classical standards were intimately involved in his vision of what America might become and what qualities of character might flourish here. Jefferson knew, from his reading of Thucydides, that the Greek idea of eutrapelia stood for a larger conception of civilized life: the root word means “graceful turning” (hence our idea of the “well-rounded” man), and it implied a beautiful versatility in action, what Matthew Arnold, in a lecture at Eton, called “a happy and gracious flexibility.” A citizen so educated as to be able to “turn,” easily and gracefully, from one task to another perhaps very different one, will not, Thucydides has Pericles say in the Funeral Oration, be idiotes, an idiot, imprisoned in a fragmentary part-life. Such a citizen will, on the contrary, be a sort of universal man, sufficiently broad-souled to contribute to the life of the city.

It was this ambitious concept of citizenship, one that had something in common with the idea of civic cultivation that thinkers like Coleridge, Mill, and Arnold would soon advocate in England, that Jefferson sought to promote in America. Such a civic culture was, he believed, threatened by the emergence of a mass manufacturing society, one that encouraged the specialization of labor, and he deplored Americans’ “mimicry” of an “Amsterdam, a Hamburg, or a city of London.” He worried that his fellow citizens would “forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money.” Yet unlike many students of the civic arts, Jefferson did not seek to impose his ideal of citizenship from above: he did not look to the state to fashion a compulsory ethos of civic virtue. He devoted himself instead to the minor forms of community, ones in which men’s civic, charitable, and creative impulses could flourish, freely and spontaneously, as they could not in larger groups.

Jefferson’s conception of the University of Virginia reflected this community ideal: he intended it to be an “academical village.” In another attempt to resurrect the Athenian vision, he proposed to divide America into communities called “wards” or “hundreds.” Each hundred or ward, Jefferson said, would “be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties.”

Jefferson was not the only major intellectual figure of the age to appeal to these minor forms of community. In 1811, two years after he had left the White House, Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility, which she followed, in 1813, with Pride and Prejudice. Largely ignoring the national politics of Pitt and Napoleon, she sought, much as Jefferson did, to carve out of the larger world “enclaves for the life of the virtues,” as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it in his reading of her novels. “What matters at this stage,” MacIntyre wrote in After Virtue, “is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” Though as a good Whig Jefferson was devoted to the private rights of the individual and the larger politics of the nation-state, he too cherished the minor forms of civic art.

“My library was dukedom large enough.” As for Prospero, so for Jefferson: books were primers in the craftsmanship that each mastered in order to fashion his little well-ordered community (marred though each was by forced labor). Jefferson’s literary work was closely connected to his desire to perfect the miniaturist art—so different from the nation-making labors of the Declaration of Independence—that made possible the life of Monticello and the “academical village” of the University of Virginia. Kevin Hayes has led the reader in the right direction, even if he has not taken the further step of ushering him into one of these Jeffersonian communities, little gems that are the most original expression of the third president’s literary and artistic passion.

Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

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