Fred Kaplan’s literary exploration “His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer” was published two weeks ago. Kaplan is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Queens College in New York City and the author of a dozen books including biographies of John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Carlyle (a 1984 Pulitzer Prize finalist).
Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly one of the most complex, contradictory and cerebral of the founding fathers. He was also one of the most gifted and prolific writers in American political history. In this 590-page narrative Kaplan explores Jefferson’s life – principally his character and philosophical tenets – as revealed through the countless letters, books, declarations and speeches he penned.
Kaplan’s book proceeds in a deceptively chronological fashion, with each of the fifteen chapters covering a distinct block of time from Jefferson’s birth to his death. But while much of his life is covered – often in surprising detail for a book focused on his literary works – many important moments receive little coverage – or none at all.
But Kaplan’s focus is not really Jefferson’s life per se. Instead, his objective is to unmask Jefferson’s character and core philosophies as revealed through his writings. And the large swaths of his non-literary life which receive coverage are included to provide adequate context for what Jefferson commits to paper.
Broad themes explored by the narrative include Jefferson’s tendency to exhibit eloquent self-deception (or rationalization) in his writings, his life-long lack of “situational awareness” regarding racial and gender equality, and his stubborn commitment to America as an enduring agrarian society centered around farmers who would share Jefferson’s values and goals.
As a result of Kaplan’s focus, however, readers not already familiar with the major elements of Jefferson’s life will find the narrative confusing and uneven. Beyond his relationship with Maria Cosway (a romantic dalliance which receives significant attention) relatively little of his personal life is revealed. And even his most important “professional” relationships – with John Adams, James Madison and others – are described with little of the intellectual charm or personal intimacy which actually sustained them.
But readers familiar with Jefferson may appreciate that Kaplan swerves to avoid the “basics” of his subject’s life. Instead, he provides scholarly and unusually thoughtful dissections of Jefferson’s most important works including “A Summary View of the Rights of British America“, the Declaration of Independence and “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
Overall, Fred Kaplan’s “His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer” is a thoughtful and deeply intellectual exploration of Thomas Jefferson as revealed by his writings. As a supplemental text for readers well-acquainted with the third president this book may prove excellent. But in spite of its frequent focus on Jefferson’s non-literary life, readers seeking a traditional biography will want to look elsewhere.
Overall Rating: “Unrated” as Biography
N.B.: Although similar in spirit to Kevin Hayes’s 2008 “The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson” (which I reviewed earlier this year), Fred Kaplan’s “His Masterly Pen” looks at Jefferson’s literary pursuits from a different angle. Where Hayes is often concerned with the books Jefferson owned and read, Kaplan is almost entirely focused on what Jefferson actually wrote. Neither of these books should be considered a traditional “biography” but for readers interested in Jefferson’s relationship with the written word, each may prove uniquely insightful.