Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Book Review: "The Road to Monticello"

Kevin Hayes, one of America's preeminent writers on literary culture and books, has done himself proud with The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 2008). Modeled on John Livingston Lowes' classic examination of Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu, Hayes' study focuses on a close examination of what "Thomas Jefferson read and what he wrote to show how the written word shaped his life."

This is the most comprehensive account by far of Thomas Jefferson's literary life, encompassing his habits as a reader, a collector, an acquirer, a disseminator, a promoter and a writer of books and other printed materials throughout his long and productive life. It goes light-years beyond William Peden's 1942 dissertation "Thomas Jefferson as Book Collector" (a very fine treatment in its own right), to place Jefferson's involvement with print culture into the context of his political, social and family life.

In his typical way, Hayes has combined copious research with an approachable and readable prose style which makes this book both eminently accessible and highly enjoyable. The chapters are short (~15 pages apiece), well paced and distinct, and the endnotes thorough and well-documented (don't ask how many articles I've added to my "get" list). Hayes' close analysis of Jefferson's written productions (his travel writings, his letters, his religious musings and common-place books, among others) are careful and uncolored by judgment, and his discussions of Jefferson's books and the important role they played in his life are second to none.

An unparalleled study, one which will stand the tests of time and then some. On a scale of one to ten, this is a twelve.