Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Women Thomas Jefferson Loved

Lately, I've been reading history, albeit cheply. Not long ago, I'd read—and enjoyed—a free ebook copy of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Since I'd bought a second-hand copy of The Women Jefferson Loved for $2 at the Discovery Shop a few months ago, I decided to tackle that next. As a native Virginian, who has visited Jefferson's Monticello a couple of times and who enjoys reading about the colonial period in Virginia, I figured I'd like it.

I more or less liked it. I did learn quite a bit about one of Virginia's founding families. The subject matter—about Jefferson's mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson; his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson; his daughters, Martha (Patsy) and Mary (Maria/Polly); his granddaughters (Patsy's daughters); and his concubine/chambermaid, Sally Hemings—was interesting, but the author's writing style made for a somewhat tedious read.

There is way too much repetition regarding Sally Hemings's kinship to various members of the Jefferson family. The author stresses over and over that Sally was Jefferson's wife's half sister, Jefferson's children's half-aunt, etc. Astute readers will get it the first (or second or third) time; they do not have to be told repeatedly.

The similes and metaphors the author used were ineffective, often made no sense, and were downright weird. The book would have been better without them. From Andrea Wulf's review in The New York Times:

Unfortunately, Scharff’s imagery can often pull the reader up short. To understand the entanglement of the Wayleses, Jeffersons and Hemingses is, she asserts, “a little like trying to eat spaghetti with a knife.” Martha’s body after her pregnancies was a “war zone.” Speculating on whether Jefferson had sex with Maria Cosway is “a little like playing tennis with an invisible ball.” Expectation and experience in a marriage collide, she tells us, “like a runaway wheelbarrow full of flower pots, jolting over a rock-strewn path.” Perhaps most bizarre, though, is Scharff’s conclusion that reality no more resembled Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of domestic bliss “than an unripe persimmon resembles a perfect pear.”
I disagree with Wulf about the most bizarre image—the one that compares reassembling Monticello's columns to working Rubik's cube was worse. The book would have been much better without this strange use of figurative language.

Another problem was the switch back and forth in time, as the author showcased the next woman Jefferson loved. These women's lives overlapped. The story would have been better—or at least way easier to understand—in strict chronological order.

The author, a noted historian in her own right, did her homework. To her credit, she consulted numerous sources, and provided a plethora of end notes and an extensive bibliography.

From the book, I learned the lives of Jefferson and his women was marked by much unhappinesss: many deaths (only two of his children with Martha lived to adulthood, some of his grandchildren died in infancy, four of his slaves died within a week of each other, etc.), disease, and his ever-growing debt.

The book has changed my opinion about Jefferson. Instead of one of the foremost proponents of liberty, he now seems seems like a male chauvinist who thought a woman's place was in the home and who amassed a tremendous amount of debt. He thought women should be protected by men, but his accumulated debts left his female heirs unprotected after his death.

Was Jefferson the father of Sally Heming's children? The author made a good case that he was, although his children denied it. However, 1999 DNA tests indicate that at least one—Eston—and possibly more of her children were indeed fathered by Jefferson. Madison Hemings's 1873 memoir also mentioned Jefferson was his father.

While the book was no an easy read, I'm nonetheless glad I read it.

After reading The Women Jefferson Loved, I read  Jefferson at Monticello, The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson, by Hamilton Wilcox Pierson. Pierson had interviewed Edmund Bacon, who was Jefferson's overseer for twenty years and recalled many details of Jefferson and life at Monticello. This book, which I enjoyed very much, was published in 1862 and is available as a free download on Google Books. 
The day after I posted this review, I received the following email from Patrick Lee, who does appearances as Thomas Jefferson:

I must take exception to this all-too-commonly-believed myth: "1999 DNA tests indicate that at least one—Eston—and possibly more of her children were indeed fathered by Jefferson." Not so at all!
    That DNA testing narrowed the Eston Heming's father to a circle of some two dozen Jefferson males, of whom Thomas Jefferson was one. There is no proof that he was THE one. There is assumption, speculation, coincidence and much political correctness but no proof. There probably never will be.
    I hope you wouldn't form any opinion of Jefferson by that book. Your own analysis finds it lacking.

    If you like, you may learn more of Jefferson from his blog! Several times each week, he posts BRIEFLY on a variety of topics. Recent posts include:

- I would like to be wrong about Negroes.
- Would you like a cigarette?
- Whistleblowers welcome!
- Are you just going to SIT there?
- “It was a dark and stormy night … “
- What do maple trees have to do with slavery?
- Did Jefferson oppose Islam?

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