The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson

By Wilson, Douglas L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson


Wilson, Douglas L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson * Kevin J. Hayes * New York: Oxford University Press, 2008 * x, 738 pp. * $34.95

This is a hard book to classify. There is no preface or introduction, but in an "Essay on Sources" the author says that the purpose of his book is "to study what Thomas Jefferson read and what he wrote to show how the written word shaped his life" (p. 647). True to this formulation, this very long and wide-ranging book is indeed biographical in scope, and it certainly focuses for the most part on Jefferson's books and his writing. The real question is the extent to which the author has been able "to show how the written word shaped his life." The shorr answer is that to readers familiar with Jefferson scholarship, there is little biographically that is new, although there are some interesting new details about Jefferson's library. Nor are there compelling insights or interpretations that present Jefferson in a conspicuously new light. On the other hand, for that reader who knows relatively little about either Jefferson's library or his writings, this book offers a cornucopia of information and opinion.

Unfortunately, there is a heavy price to be paid for such benefits as the book bestows. The pace of the narrative, for example, is leisurely, if not leaden. There is always time for general observations and sidelights, even when these lead away from the matter at hand. Although the general organization, which follows biographical chronology, seems rational enough, the arrangement of material within chapters often does not. The first chapter, for example, which is entitled "Fire!" and starts off as if it were about the Shadwell fire, soon drifts into the vulnerability of paper, and thus of books and manuscript records, and then on to what Jefferson believed was the best means of preservation - publication. Speculation about what books survived the fire leads to how Jefferson marked his books, which entails a long account of how Jefferson's remark about purchasing a coat of arm is actually a reference to an obscure work of Laurence Sterne. …

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