The Brief History of a Historical Novel: Thomas Jefferson Was an Enigma to Everyone He Met. A Century and a Half after His Death, on Writer Strives to Understand, If Not the Man Himself, Then at Least the World as It Knew Him

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LET ME BEGIN WITH A CONFESSION.

For many years, as I liked to tell my friends, I led a life of crime, though part-time only. By day, I taught 18th-century English literature at the University of California, Davis. By night, I wrote somewhat lurid paperback detective novels for Bantam Books. I did my scholarly research in my office or the quiet stacks of the library. The research for my detective novels I carried out in low bars and off-duty cop haunts in the mean streets of the San Francisco Tenderloin. Once I even enrolled in a special course in the California Highway Patrol Bomb Squad School.

But one morning in 1988 my publisher at Bantam, a man named Steve Rubin, whom I had never actually met, called me. After a few minutes of cheerful small talk, he cleared his throat and said rather ominously that he didn't much like detective novels, even mine. That produced a long, painful silence at my end of the line, as I waited to hear the whistle of the ax falling. Instead, Steve went on to say that, since I was a specialist in the 18th century, he wanted me to give up crime and try my hand at a historical novel set in that period. Specifically, he wanted me to write a novel about Thomas Jefferson.

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The dumbest idea I had ever heard, I told him. In my opinion, Jefferson was a character completely unsuited for fiction. He was not a dramatic man of action, but a man of the pen and the book--his life had been crowded with incident and accomplishment, but there was no obvious pattern to it, such as a novelist seeks. (I mentioned, by contrast, Lincoln, the subject of innumerable novels, who was a kind of American Hamlet--witty, melancholy, framed forever against the titanic backdrop of the Civil War, assassinated at the moment of victory in a public theater.) Jefferson had lived a long, untheatrical life, seemingly little tormented by inner conflicts, and died in bed at the age of 83. Moreover, he was famously enigmatic. Almost everyone who had ever known him used the same words to describe him: elusive, reserved, aloof. (The word that turned up most often to characterize him, as I later learned, was "feline.")

But Steve kept telephoning, and eventually, after another detective novel or two, I came around. I told him I would write a novel about Thomas Jefferson on two conditions: that he would cover the costs of my research, and that he would allow me to focus on Jefferson's life in the years from 1784 to 1789. Yes, yes, he said, somewhat impatiently, of course he would pay my research expenses. He imagined (I know because he has since told me so) that these would be chiefly some books, some photocopying, perhaps a short trip to Monticello. Then, as an afterthought, he asked why I had chosen those years. Because, I said, that was when Jefferson served as the American minister to France, and my research would have to be done in Paris. This time, the long, painful silence was at his end.

There are essentially two kinds of historical novels. One you might call simply a "costume drama"--the kind of story with swords and muskets and powdered wigs, but no real pretense to telling the reader anything significant, or even true, about authentic historical figures or events. The best examples of this kind of historical novel are those by the great Rafael Sabatini, author of such stirring adventure yarns as Scaramouche (1921) and--my nomination for one of the two or three best titles in fiction--Captain Blood (1922). A more recent and far more elegant example is Patrick O'Brian's series of seafaring novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, astonishing in their realistic detail but centered on two entirely fictional heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin.

Alas, I had agreed to write, not a new version of Captain Blood, but the other kind of historical novel: a sober, factually accurate story about an actual historical figure. Steve Rubin had set out few guidelines, but he made it clear that, because the general outlines of Jefferson's life and character are so familiar and established, it would be imprudent to take many liberties. …

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