Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hitchens biography of Jefferson more like history than biography

Hitchens approaches Jefferson like a canny journalist, lacking an historical strategies or psychological theories 

I’ve been reading through a series of American Biographies, of which Christopher Hitchens’ short biography of Thomas Jefferson was the first. I expected caustic wit as characterized by his book “God is Not Great” in which his journalist’s virtue for a thousand handy examples proved his points with barb and tact, much in the tradition of Mencken, another great wit, whose contempt for human foibles was at least bolstered by constant confrontation with its newsworthy aspects. Well this book wasn’t like that. Pretty much it was just a basic biography of the man, without too much elaboration, even any sort of justification for his subtitle: Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. Of course biographical subtitles are supposed to be far flung and in themselves incredible, but I would have liked to see more of an exposition of this claim. Sure, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, with a little help from his friends, but the Constitution was penned by others.

Good skeptic that he is, and a fan of Paine and all his Reason over Faith, Hitchens notes again and again that Jefferson’s rhetoric turns to religious metaphors when he writes in zeal for America – talks of “blessing” and “providence,” “apostates,” etc. I am surprised at Hitchens surprise: it seems long most people, though secular to the bone, if they were raised in and continue to live in a religiously influenced society, would resort to language of faith, just as a man of any faith or belief my shout “Dear God” when he sees an automobile accident, for the language has nothing to do with belief, but with habitual forms of rhetoric.

Hitchens is good at summing up Jefferson’s virtues as a writer and thinker, while noting with pragmatic honesty how often Jefferson’s political maneuvering and his equivocal stance on slavery make his political life troubling to us. Considering the fervor of Jefferson’s belief, face to face with the spirit of compromise implied in all political activity, I would say Jefferson held up very well – and that seems to be Hitchens conclusion as well.

He says, “Jefferson and Paine had this in common in that year of revolution; they had the gift of pithily summarizing what was already understood, and then of moving an already mobilized audience to follow an inexorable logic.”

The burden of the short biography, which is part of a series meant to introduce a wider literature of biographers for immanent men, is on putting in parallel Jefferson’s intellectual life to his political life, and both in parallel with the development of the early United States. The much gossiped but ultimately irrelevant business of his affair with Sally Hemmings he passes over out of necessity, but no personal interest, and the other affairs of the Jefferson, with women actually married (a truer scandal if anything) are given more notice and no intention of apology or explanation: that’s a politician! Who cares?

The book is not at all psychologically deep, but to its credit, it never intended to be. There is no discussion of the mind of Jefferson, what created it, and how it both came out of, and yet transcended, the intellectual climate of revolutionary America. As a journalist, Hitchens sticks to the facts, and doesn’t seem to have any developed pet theories of his own. I would have preferred he did.


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