Sunday, August 03, 2008

Review: The Road to Monticello

Kevin J. Hayes, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson.

This book could easily have been titled, "Jefferson the Bibliophile," but the author's inspiration for the actual title was to pay homage to John Livingston Lowe's study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu. Hayes' literary and intellectual biography uses the books Jefferson loved--as well as those read or possessed by the people taught, met or impacted Jefferson--to chart the intellectual provenance of the Sage of Monticello.

Unsurprisingly, the list of books cataloged by Hayes is immense and impressive. But the insight that Hayes derives from his study of the Sage's reading list (as well as those Jefferson compiled for others), particularly the marginalia found in the books themselves, are the key that unlocks the door to the Jeffersonian mind.

Hayes consistently points out that "Jefferson preferred the life of the mind" and one would have to agree: how else could on man read and write so copiously if he didn't prize intellectual pursuits over most else? The importance of Bacon, Locke and Newton to Jefferson are unsurprising. But Jefferson was also particularly keen for Aesop's fables
...especially those that were useful as political allegories, like the one about the miller, his son, and their ass. By trying to please everyone, the miller ends up pleasing no one and loses his ass in the bargain.
It wasn't always the serious, or at least the factual, book that piqued the Jeffersonian mind
Fiction, Jefferson observed, could fulfill the purpose of teaching moral virtue better than fact. History was too uneven--few episodes in history could excite the "sympathetic emotion of virtue" at its highest level. Fiction, alternatively, could evoke a reader's sympathy because imaginary characters can be fashioned in a way real personages cannot. Fictional characters can illustrate and exemplify "every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the ry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written."
Thus did emotion, or a good yarn, help the mind see its way to logic.

For the intellectual historian, the meat-and-potato portions of the book are those in which Hayes traces the literary and philosophical influences of acute Jeffersonian works. Name a piece of writing produced by Jefferson and Hayes will trace its intellectual and literary genealogy. But he does so within the context of the times in which Jefferson was writing and illustrates how Jefferson did more than simply collate and regurgitate information. Jefferson's writing is filled with wisdom gained from reading, but also from his ability to observe and reason.

Jefferson was more than just a man of books, he was also, indelibly, a man--perhaps the man--of his time. Hayes puts Jefferson within historical and intellectual context and illustrates how this impressive thinker was able to build upon past literary works to help create a new and hopefully better nation. There is much here for the scholar and the layperson to digest. Road to Monticello is an important addition to anyone's, even Jefferson's, library.

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