I think Thomas Jefferson is one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.
Finkelman’s comments come in the context of an article in today’s New York Times that takes note of the controversy surrounding Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek. If you have been reading these pages regularly over the past few weeks, you’ll find nothing particularly new in the Times except for the comments of scholars like Finkelman, who goes on to criticize Wiencek.
The article does take note of the fact—but without elaborating on its possible significance—that non-specialists have heaped praise on Master of the Mountain while historians, and Jefferson scholars in particular, have unsheathed their knives. Why is this the case? The Times dares not speculate, except to leave the reader with the impression that respected critics such as Laura Miller and Jonathan Yardley are best left to reviewing fiction.
What’s interesting to me is that in her review Miller writes that, while its descriptions of slavery made her sick to her stomach, Master of the Mountain is a book every American should read. By contrast, Annette Gordon-Reed, the Jefferson-Hemings scholar, declares that the book offers nothing new.
But if there’s nothing new, then what to do with Miller’s praise?
One gets the sense that, going in, Miller intuitively sympathized with the idea that Jefferson deserved to be knocked down a rung—in all fairness, I did, too!—and was happy to find an argument as persuasive and eloquent as Wiencek’s. What Gordon-Reed dismisses as the book’s scoop-obsessed “tone,” Miller sees as an argument, one that at least feels new, and one that she finds compelling for all sorts of historical and cultural reasons.
If her review declines to challenge that argument—and that is its glaring weakness—at least it fully acknowledges it.
Miller represents both the great advantage and disadvantage of having a non-scholar review a work of historical scholarship. Master of the Mountain was not published by a small academic press, but by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Its audience is general: people like you and me and Laura Miller. And it’s valuable to know, through the review process, that we will likely find this book new and worthwhile—we who do not, as the Times tells us historian do, read the footnotes first.
Anyway, this is the argument I used to make to editors when I, a non-scholar, reviewed hefty historical tracts like Peter Brown‘s The Rise of Western Christendom (2003). Historians are all about department politics and protecting turf, I said. Why not give voice to an outsider?
Well, one reason is that outsiders may not be in a position to push back against a book’s scholarly shortcomings. But one of the things lost in this gargantuan struggle between the forces of Gordon-Reed and the forces of Wiencek—marshaled as they are on a field of battle unknown to most readers—is the experience of Laura Miller and others like her.
She found the book new and challenging—and so may you.
IMAGE: Detail from a caricature of Thomas Jefferson by Josh Lange, 2010 (joshlange.blogspot.com)