American history, biographies, book reviews, Kevin J. Hayes, presidential biographies, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson
Kevin Hayes’s “The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson” was published in 2008 and is the first ‘literary life’ of Thomas Jefferson. Hayes is emeritus professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma and is the author of “George Washington: A Life in Books” and “The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas.”
Of this country’s 45 presidents, Thomas Jefferson stands out as one of the most fervent fans of the written word. He was a voracious reader, an extremely skilled writer and enthusiastic collector of books. Given this backdrop, Hayes has written a unique – and impressively thorough – account of Jefferson’s intellectual life by focusing on the letters he wrote and the books he collected and studied.
Early in its 644-page run, this book exhibits most of the look and feel of a traditional, comprehensive biography…but with a pronounced emphasis on Jefferson’s literary life. And intermittently throughout its forty-two chapters, nearly all of the critical elements, milestones and events of Jefferson’s life are introduced.
But in no way is “The Road to Monticello” a traditional biography of Jefferson, nor can it serve as a reasonable substitute for one. Instead, this is a remarkably deep, detailed and erudite study of Jefferson’s intellectual life as gleaned through careful investigation of the written words which infused his personal and professional lives.
As a result of the book’s unique mission, however, its content will appeal only to a narrow audience – a very small slice of those readers already familiar with Jefferson who are interested in a scholarly (and almost philosophical) exploration of his intellectual evolution. In addition, anyone specifically interested in connecting his most famous works (such as the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia) to his literary and oratorical influences will find that well-explored here.
But Hayes is far more concerned with the books Jefferson bought, traded, loaned and read than he is concerned with revealing Jefferson’s personal or professional relationships, how or why he sought the presidency or what he actually did while in political office.
Indeed, the reader learns far more of Jefferson’s literary curiosities during his “retirement” years in the mid-1790s than of his tenure as Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State or his two terms in the White House. As a result, anyone expecting to obtain a thorough introduction to Jefferson’s personal and political lives will find these facets of his life difficult (if not impossible) to discern and digest.
Overall, Kevin Hayes’s “The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson” is quite good at offering a robust exploration of Jefferson’s relationship with the printed word. But while this book contains much of the skeleton of a traditional biography, it offers virtually none of the texture or topography that would animate or delineate this former president’s persona.
Overall Rating: “Unrated” as Biography
Thank you for this excellent review! As an avid book collector, I’m probably part of the “narrow audience” that will find this book fascinating. Thank you again!
If you ever decide to read this, I’ll be curious to know what you think!