JFK once held a state dinner for all American-born Nobel laureates. At one point during the festivities, he rose to offer a toast, remarking that there hadn't been so much talent gathered in the White House dining room since Thomas Jefferson ate there alone.
The laureates took the unintended slight with good grace. How could they have not? Thomas Jefferson was without doubt our most cerebral president. He may not have had the academic discipline of a Woodrow Wilson or the native wisdom of a Lincoln. But as we all know, and as Kevin Hayes documents in impressive detail in his splendid Road to Monticello, there's never been a more bookish president, nor a wider-read one, than Jefferson.
Hayes has written an old-style (I mean this as a compliment, by the way) intellectual biography. Jefferson's public career is mentioned in passing, but what Hayes is primarily concerned to do is chart the course of Jefferson's thought from his earliest to his final days by charting his reading. Who were the authors that especially impressed him? That he found especially wanting? What connections between his diverse readings did he make? What were the blindspots and lacunae in his thinking and reading? Why did he select the quotes he jotted down in his Commonplace Books? In short, what Hayes wants to do in The Road to Monticello is get a clearer picture of Jefferson the thinker from examining the books he thought about.
Jefferson's erudition is impressive. He read in six languages (including Anglo-Saxon), and was interested in Asian, Indian, and Semetic languages. And he read everything: law, politics, philosophy, geography, history, the occasional theology tome, anthropology, science, music, fiction, poetry, agronomy, cookbooks. His curiosity was boundless, and never abated as the years rolled on. He cross-referenced his readings with marginalia: his law books, for example, frequently contain scribbled references to Greek tragedians and historians. He collected books avidly, during a time when book collecting wasn't all that easy. Hayes tells us that whenever Jefferson rolled into a city, he quickly made his way to the bookshops. By the end of his life, he'd amassed one of the finest collections in the early Republic, which (characteristically) he catalogued according to a system of his own invention. (Hayes' description of it is fascinating, especially for those of us who know a little about Francis Bacon.)
But Jefferson was also an extremely secretive man, and even though Hayes provides us with an excellent account of the cerebral food that fed Jefferson's intellect, I closed the book feeling that Jefferson the man still remained more enigmatic than not. Hayes tells us what Jefferson thought about, but what made him tick remains elusive. This isn't Hayes' failure so much as Jefferson's refusal to leave no personal memoirs, no tormented self-examinations in his Commonplace Books, and very few epistolary revelations. Ultimately, then, Hayes helps us penetrate the mind of Jefferson. But the third president's soul remains unexplored, as it probably always will.
Highly recommended. A genuine treat.
It is hard to think of a better subject than Thomas Jefferson for such a fine extended literary biography as the one at hand. Here the scholar Kevin Hayes nicely and authoritatively relates how books and the love of learning formed the central core to the elusive life that was Mr. Jefferson's, one of the most important political, diplomatic, and educational figures in our nation's history.
Anyone interested in the formation of great personal and public libraries; literature and learning in early America; the personal life and travels of Thomas Jefferson and his great literary works (e.g., The Declaration of Independence) should buy and read this deeply informative and finely crafted book.
Potential readers should be aware this is not a detailed political history, nor is it one that explores Mr. Jefferson's complex attitudes and actions concerning slavery. Other books should be consulted for better descriptions of such important points as the political/economic differences between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and the role played by Sally Hemings in Mr. Jefferson's home life.
This is a somewhat unique approach to writing an intellectual biography of Thomas Jefferson: "...to study what Thomas Jefferson read and what he wrote to show how the written word shaped his life." Given Jefferson's absolute passion for books ("I cannot live without books") as reflected in his extensive libraries, this is quite an undertaking. Not only has the author reviewed TJ's correspondence, books, and records, he also has scoured biographies, books about TJ at Monticello, and a variety of original sources (including TJ's own notations in his surviving books) to paint probably the most complete picture we will ever have of Jefferson's intellectual interests and development. It is a lengthy work, some 650 pages of text, a further 54 pages of invaluable detailed notes, and a helpful "Essay on Sources." So it takes a while to read it, but the time investment is well justified by the book's contributions.
But the book is about more than just TJ, as if that were not enough. The reader learns, for example, a great deal about the "book culture" of the colonial and early national period, as well as the general intellectual life. But Jefferson himself is the dominant focus. The author follows a chronological approach, so that those familiar with TJ's life can slot this new knowledge into their existing frameworks, while novices learn a great deal about TJ's life generally. I think the book well illustrates the connections between Jefferson's intellectual interests and his political positions and philosophical orientation. I found the extent of his foreign-language reading quite interesting, as well as his interest in just about everything that was going on, from the weather, to Indians, to archeology, to all manner of scientific research, farming and gardening, winemaking, and the list just goes on and on. The author's discussion of Jefferson's views on slavery and how his intellectual interests contributed to developing his thoughts on this topic is particularly helpful. The reader also learns much more about Jefferson the author, as all his books (yes, there are more than just the "Notes on the State of Virginia") are discussed in detail. Moreover, we gain a valuable insight into not only how TJ made some friendships, but how his inner circle interacted with one another, often on the basis of shared intellectual interests.
The book is extremely thorough, so sometimes the reader can get buried in an ocean of titles and authors--but this abundance is one reason the book is so rich in contributions. The author is an extremely prolific English professor from Oklahoma with whom I was not acquainted previously. However, to paraphrase what Gore Vidal once said re Jefferson: if you are interested in TJ, you must be with Kevin J. Hayes and this extraordinary study.
on July 8, 2010
"The Road to Monticello" is a most enjoyable biography to read, and one that does justice to an incredible man. Enjoyable, because Jefferson's life-long dedication to study and knowledge is truly inspiring, making one realize the importance of self-study in a day and age where it has become almost abnormal to do so. Additionally, the attention to detail in this book is phenomenal. The book does not attempt to do the impossible of encompassing every aspect of Jefferson's life, but the things it does cover, are covered so well that the reader does not need to worry about filling in holes. The attention to detail also makes it a very personal account of Jefferson.
Hayes's writing is sophisticated and the book is well researched, something remarkable provided how many literary works it describes. Often, one gets the feeling that Hayes has truly made new discoveries about Jefferson not found anywhere else. It is an amazing scholarly work.
However, I have to warn people who are looking for a complete biography of Jefferson that this book is not it. I highly recommend it to those wanting to get to know Jefferson more profoundly in terms of what he studied and what mattered to him, or for those simply looking for inspiration from a great man.
on February 2, 2010
One of the most interesting biographies I've ever read. If you're looking for relational or historical details of Thomas Jefferson's life- this is not the book for you. If you have a borderline unhealthy love for books- hit that purchase button.
This book can be summarized on page 564, "The Retirement Library" where Jefferson comments to Adams that "I cannot live without books."
Hayes did an excellent job relating Jefferson's life through the spectrum of books he read- from boyhood until his deathbed. Whether you like Jefferson or not- it is easy to appreciate his thirst for knowledge. Each chapter was perfect in length. Hayes' use of the English language is refreshing- I always enjoy learning plenty of new words.
I actually cried...almost sobbed...in the chapter that his wife died. People seemed much more romantic then...Martha wrote "Time wastes too fast, every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return- more everything presses on." And Jefferson responds, "and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make." ahh, what a good book.
on June 5, 2009
I agree with others that the book can become daunting with regard to the numerous book titles mentioned and analyzed through what seemed, at times, numerous, never-ending pages. My first thoughts on writing a critique of the book were to say that I wished the author had spent less time on the analysis of Jefferson's literary pursuits and more time on Jefferson himself.
Having now finished the book, however, I realize how folly that comment would have been. To study Jefferson as a whole, means delving into every aspect of his life including the books: those books he felt important, and those books that shaped his thinking.
As Jefferson begins to unfold to the eyes of the reader, you come to know him as never before. No longer is he only a founding father of our country and all of the other things commonly known about him. We find that he is a true scholar and a gentleman in every sense. A person so dynamic on so many levels there are too many to count. He is simply the very best there has ever been of us.
In the end, one cannot help from falling in love with him and, in turn, loving the book that gave Jefferson to us so completely.
on March 11, 2011
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.
on January 14, 2013
This book could easily have been titled, "Jefferson the Bibliophile," but the author's inspiration for the actual title was to pay homage to John Livingston Lowe's study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu. Hayes' literary and intellectual biography uses the books Jefferson loved--as well as those read or possessed by the people taught, met or impacted Jefferson--to chart the intellectual provenance of the Sage of Monticello.
Unsurprisingly, the list of books cataloged by Hayes is immense and impressive. But the insight that Hayes derives from his study of the Sage's reading list (as well as those Jefferson compiled for others), particularly the marginalia found in the books themselves, are the key that unlocks the door to the Jeffersonian mind.
Hayes consistently points out that "Jefferson preferred the life of the mind" and one would have to agree: how else could on man read and write so copiously if he didn't prize intellectual pursuits over most else? The importance of Bacon, Locke and Newton to Jefferson are unsurprising. But Jefferson was also particularly keen for Aesop's fables "...especially those that were useful as political allegories, like the one about the miller, his son, and their ass. By trying to please everyone, the miller ends up pleasing no one and loses his ass in the bargain." It wasn't always the serious, or at least the factual, book that piqued the Jeffersonian mind:
"Fiction, Jefferson observed, could fulfill the purpose of teaching moral virtue better than fact. History was too uneven--few episodes in history could excite the "sympathetic emotion of virtue" at its highest level. Fiction, alternatively, could evoke a reader's sympathy because imaginary characters can be fashioned in a way real personages cannot. Fictional characters can illustrate and exemplify "every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty...is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written."
Thus did emotion, or a good yarn, help the mind see its way to logic.
For the intellectual historian, the meat-and-potato portions of the book are those in which Hayes traces the literary and philosophical influences of acute Jeffersonian works. Name a piece of writing produced by Jefferson and Hayes will trace its intellectual and literary genealogy. But he does so within the context of the times in which Jefferson was writing and illustrates how Jefferson did more than simply collate and regurgitate information. Jefferson's writing is filled with wisdom gained from reading, but also from his ability to observe and reason.
Jefferson was more than just a man of books, he was also, indelibly, a man--perhaps the man--of his time. Hayes puts Jefferson within historical and intellectual context and illustrates how this impressive thinker was able to build upon past literary works to help create a new and hopefully better nation. There is much here for the scholar and the layperson to digest. Road to Monticello is an important addition to anyone's, even Jefferson's, library.
This is a very different and specific record of Jefferson's life. The book's focus is about the readings, books and scope of Jefferson's library. For this reason only, I thought it was going to be extremely interesting. After reading about Jefferson's libraries and literary interests, I am further inspired to become a life long learner. Until his last days he was still studying (even learning Chinese) and that is simply the greatest value I received from this book. I can only speak for myself but I do intend to spend my "golden years" continuing to grow by reading/studying. The one trait that Jefferson had that I am still evaluating is the purpose of spreading his interests between so many topics. I still think the value of truly becoming an expert in a few subjects is more valuable than having moderate knowledge of many subjects. In summary, please read this book to inspire yourself to keep growing mentally.
on September 24, 2009
Thomas Jefferson was a great intellectual and patriot. He served as Governor of Virginia, Vice-President and President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence; Notes on the State of Virginia, parliamentary manuals
and countless letters. The sage of Monticello and former president John Adams engaged in the greatest epistolary friendship in American letters. Jefferson had an inquisitive mind and retentive memory. He was a polyglot and collected thousands of books on a wide variety of topics. He was a Renaissance man living in a turbulent time.
The Road to Monticello is like nothing you have read before on our third president. Dr. Kevin J. Hayes focuses on the intellectual and reflective man of letters who was also one of our founding fathers. Jefferson was educated at home and at William and Mary College. He was an autodidatic scholar who read widely in the Greek and Roman classics, architecture and fine arts science, agriculture, history, biography, botany and foreign languages. Hayes says Jefferson had the greatest private library in the United States including hundreds of law books he donated to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Jefferson sold most of the great Monticello Library to the Library of Congress after that institution had been burnt by British Troops on their Washington raid in 1814. He then developed a new collection at Monticello where he enjoyed a pleasant retirement on his large estate.
Jefferson enjoyed reading, walking, gardening, writing and studying foreign languages. He acquired many of his books while US Ambassador to Paris and on his travels in England and on the European continent. He loved recommending books to his family members and friends.
Jefferson was a man of the Age of Enlightenment who held unorthodox religious views. His heroes were Isaac Newton, John Locke and Francis Bacon. He popularized the phrase "the wall of separation between church and state" He wanted all Americans to be given religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Jefferson was a Republican agrarian who opposed Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist. Jefferson read newspaper with avidity and was a historian of the natural and political history of his beloved Virginia.
Dr. Hayes is an expert on early American book culture and teaches us much about printing, bookshops and the sharing of intellectual ideas during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As a bibllophile and patriot I found this unusual biography of Thomas Jefferson enthralling and educational. Well recommended for anyone with an interest in books. Thomas Jefferson or American history!