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The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson Hardcover – July 1, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Another study of Thomas Jefferson, but with a difference: this one focuses on Jefferson's thought, especially on its development from his youth. The book's freshness and immediacy lie in the author's emphasis on the libraries Jefferson accumulated and the marginal notes he left in the books he read. Hayes, a scholar of reading habits and print culture, takes us through Jefferson's hugely wide and eclectic reading with an ease and lightness often missing from a subject central to American history: how Jefferson came to possess the ideas that have resonated through America's concept of itself. The result is lengthy—necessarily so, for no contemporaries (John Adams excepted) read and collected books as widely as Jefferson. His marginalia and correspondence and the books he purchased yield a remarkable record of one man's responses to what his mind encountered, absorbed and rejected. While the book won't appeal to those who want to learn more of Jefferson's active life, it will enlighten and delight all those drawn to Jefferson and the early years of so many classic American ideas. 12 b&w illus. (Aug.)
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Surveying existing Jefferson biographies, Hayes detected an omission he makes good on here: the literary life of the multitalented Founder. Encompassing Jefferson’s marginalia in books, his references to books in correspondence, his writings akin to literary criticism, and conversations about books, anything related to Jefferson’s bibliophilism qualifies for Hayes’ mention or paraphrase. Although a contemplative mood infuses Hayes’ work, it is animated by its connection of Jefferson’s current tastes or recollections of past reading, extending back to childhood, with the events of his life. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy was his and wife Martha’s favorite. Parallel to tracking Jefferson’s emotional and intellectual engagement with literature, Hayes also incorporates Jefferson’s book-buying habits, from particular visits to booksellers down to the physical details of the individual editions that attracted him. Except for the sale of his library to the Library of Congress, books as such tend not to appear in biographies of Jefferson. Hayes’ able and comprehensive remedy restores Jefferson as a prodigious purchaser and reader of books. --Gilbert Taylor
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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.
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.
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.