JEFFERSON AND MONTICELLO: The Biography of a Builder by Jack McLaughlin

JEFFERSON AND MONTICELLO: The Biography of a Builder

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A history of the construction of Monticello may be one way to arrive at a biography of Thomas Jefferson, but it is definitely the scenic route. While this work does contribute refinements and tintings to our portrait of Jefferson, this attempt is, overall, a loosely organized and digressive essay that devotes as much analysis to Jefferson's nail-making manufactory as to his psychosexual state, as much time to his recipes as to his statecraft. What was Monticello? A celebration of both symmetry and gimmickry. A 30-year pet project. Perhaps, as Erik Erikson observed, ""a maternal shrine""? How does the house encapuslate its builder? Jefferson's egalitarianism is reflected in his choice of utilitarian rather than ceremonial stairways. His conflicting demands for privacy and light result in an infatuation with Venetian blinds. And what of the late addition to the ""porticals""--were they, as some have said, designed to hide the comings and goings of a slave mistress? The use of the house as a document provides an interesting spin to all the traditional debates of Jeffersonian scholarship. Although the book's primary attitude is hagiography--the traditional awe for Jefferson's wide-ranging genius, originality, diligence, wit--a strangely negative feeling about Jefferson grows in the second half. The painful litany of postponements, setbacks, and rebuilding, combined with the looming specter of his eventual bankruptcy, and the spare reference to his political life, gives the mounting impression of Jefferson as a thorough failure. His beloved Palladian columns come out crooked. His dome room sits uselessly empty. Bricks crumble, wood warps, and glass breaks. Even the beacon of the American Enlightenment, it seems, could not stand firm in the onslaught of Murphy's Law. Those with the inclination will enjoy the detailed digressions on French cooking, beer-brewing, attitudes towards the American Indian, and the state of brick-making in early 19th-century Virginia. And political historians may glean an insight or two to add to the canon, but for the most part this is an inventory history, more a taking-stock than a sifting or interpretation. The modest goals of a ""domestic history"" are met with aplomb, however.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
ISBN: 0805014632
Publisher: Henry Holt