Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

'With What Majesty Do We There Ride above the Storms!' Jefferson at Monticello

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

'With What Majesty Do We There Ride above the Storms!' Jefferson at Monticello

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson's lifelong obsession with Monticello helps to explain both the nature of his thought and the mysteries of the man. Owner, architect, and construction manager all in one, he began in 1768 but repeatedly tore apart his own handiwork, rebuilding compulsively across half a century before leaving the house unfinished at his death in 1826. Throughout, Jefferson's declared love for the tranquillity of home warred with his compulsive desire to tinker with its terms, and he saw the contradiction clearly enough to acknowledge it, once referring to the presumed grandeur of Monticello as living in a brick kiln. There is a puzzle to be read in these conflicted efforts. "Architecture as a spatial creation is the outer garment of a secretive and vital system," Bettina Knapp has argued in Archetype, Architecture, and the Writer, "it is a nonverbal manifestation of a preconscious condition." If so, the presumed link between outer and inner frames of reference would seem to be especially significant in an architect who so self-consciously and laboriously turned his private home into a public symbol of his time and place.

The many roles of the public man-politician, scholar, inventor, lawyer, farmer, and slaveowner-meant that Jefferson built for many different purposes and, not least, with a national audience in mind. The symbol of the ideally constructed house was a vital one for a new nation absorbed in problems of self-definition, and the relative insufficiencies of early American society encouraged its participants to emphasize the house as the basic unit of meaning over larger elements in the social fabric. Moreover, the symbolism of the house applied with special force in the aristocratic South. The Virginia planter class to which Jefferson belonged used the manor or plantation house to enact the social code of hospitality that it lived by and as a controlling metaphor for enforcing caste and hierarchy in a slave culture. Town life, as Jefferson made clear in Notes on the State of Virginia, was virtually non-existent; the basis of communal identity was indeed the manor house, and Jefferson was peculiarly receptive to the symbolism involved. He worried about the absence of important buildings and architectural sophistication in American society; these absences, he argued, undermined social authority as well as republican principle.

The commitment to build a house that would be more than a house left Jefferson with several obvious difficulties. Unified symbols do not easily emerge from the messiness of everyday life, and early Americans from Tom Paine to Abraham Lincoln were fond of reminding themselves that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Monticello could not help but be such a divided house. Literally a monumental extravagance, it arose out of a slave economy that the architect-owner hated, and it simultaneously bespoke the debtor status of a planter class that needed forced labor to support its lavish lifestyle. Monticello also staged a more personal struggle: the public figure entertained frequently but insisted on his own privacy in conflicting patterns of hospitality and architectonic withdrawal. Guests at Monticello typically found the essential openness of its design to be of little avail; a series of carefully locked doors cut up the interior floor plan, thwarting access to the best rooms for everyone except their host.

But even if Monticello can be seen as a house divided against itself, we must not overlook the forgotten unities that made Monticello a potent symbol, then and now. Jefferson displayed enormous ingenuity within the functional integrity available to him. He brought unique form as well as beauty to a brick mansion of 35 rooms-a mansion built not on a riverbank, where most plantation houses stood for reasons of commerce, but, improbably and inefficiently, on the top of a mountain, where access was hard and construction twice as difficult. Inevitably, perhaps, it is the tensions involved that attract the modern observer, but in regarding these tensions, we should consider first the purposes that presumed discrepancies might have served in their own time. …

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