“Jefferson & His Time: Jefferson the Virginian” is the first of six volumes in Dumas Malone’s epic biography of Thomas Jefferson, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Malone wrote the biography between 1948 and 1981 and by the time it was completed, was nearly blind. He was the oldest man ever awarded a Pulitzer when he received it in 1975 at age 83 (before the landmark work had even seen its last volume), and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.
“Jefferson the Virginian” covers the first four decades of Thomas Jefferson’s life, up to the point when in 1784 he was sailing across the Atlantic to become an American diplomat in Europe. During the period covered in this volume, Jefferson was a student, lawyer, legislator, author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia and was married and too-soon widowed.
Although we begin to scratch the surface on his innumerable talents and interests (were Ben Franklin never alive, Jefferson might have been viewed as our nation’s earliest Renaissance Man), unfortunately we never penetrate the hard shell of his exterior in order to really know him. It is unfortunate for history that Jefferson was a much more private man than, say, John Adams who committed nearly all his thoughts to paper. As a result, we learn very little – almost nothing, in fact – of Jefferson’s wife or children, or anything of his family life.
This book is well-organized into seven broad sections containing twenty-eight chapters, each chapter with a specific theme or period of focus, working through his life chronologically. Malone’s work, as described previously by others, is scrupulously researched, assiduously footnoted, and encyclopedic in detail. It does not take long to fully appreciate the breathtaking scope of Malone’s multi-volume work which was completed in an era well before computing made information more accessible.
Yet it is the sheer force of the book’s slow pace and intricate minutia which impedes the casual reader’s progress. The author himself admits to “…what may have seemed wearisome detail.” In the eyes of a discerning academic, Malone’s first volume is likely to be perceived as precise, meticulous and thorough – a first monument to real Jefferson scholarship.
But to the average reader seeking the pleasure of a comfortable biography, it appears verbose, occasionally laborious and often tedious to plow through. Gratification is there to be found, but only at a measured pace. By the end of the book, I felt less like I had read an interesting account of Jefferson’s early life and more like I had re-read my college thermodynamics textbook.
In addition, Malone’s text assumes the reader is well-familiar with the context of the era. For example, there is only a brief reference to the Stamp and Townshend Acts and only passing discussion of the American Revolution – until the British chase Jefferson away from Monticello in the closing chapters. Where a thorough biography of Washington seems much like a primer on the Revolution, this volume on Jefferson instead reads like a comprehensive introduction to Virginia history (not a bad thing for those of us living in the Commonwealth). And since this is not an American history book, while incremental context would be useful it is not strictly necessary.
Overall, I am pleased but not overjoyed at my first experience with Malone’s towering work on Thomas Jefferson. Even when it was not particularly “fun” there can be little doubt it was useful. With five volumes left to read, just over half of Jefferson’s fascinating life remains to be re-lived, and I’m confident Malone has left it fully described. So although the style of writing and the depth of detail leaves me a bit fatigued, I am looking forward to the next volume…
Overall rating: 3½ stars