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Archive for June, 2009


Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Maira Kalman, over on the NY Times website, has put together a truly extraordinary piece (I’m not even sure what to call it — an essay with drawings? a pictorial thought-piece?) on Thomas Jefferson.  Lovely and lyrical, and it captures something about the guy that’s difficult, sometimes, to capture in naked prose.

Jefferson’s undergoing a little bit of a public rehabilitation these days, it seems to me.  I’m absurdly biased, I realize; I just spent 12 years of my life writing a book in which he’s the main character, and I developed the deepest admiration for his ideas and his principles and his approach to the world.  But I do detect something of a turning of the tide — from a focus on “evil slaveholder” back to one on “profound thinker.”  It’s a good move for us all - Jefferson’s got a lot to teach us, and I think a generation or so went by when it was almost impossible to get any of that across because of the ill-regard in which he was held by so many.

Ms. Kalman’s title — “Time Wastes Too Fast” — comes from a deeply poignant episode in Jefferson’s life.  I described it this way in In Search of Jefferson’s Moose:

“In the Spring of 1781, Jefferson was finishing up his second term as Governor of Virginia, the office to which he had been appointed following his service with the Continental Congress and his justly-celebrated work drafting the Declaration of Independence.  It was a very difficult and unhappy time in his life.  His infant daughter Lucy Elizabeth died in April; his wife Martha, who had never quite recovered from the pregnancy (her fifth in seven years), was also, slowly, dyingMartha Jefferson died the following year (September, 1782).

Her deathbed scene is the stuff of legend.  Just before she died, she scrawled an excerpt from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy on a piece of paper:

Time wastes too fast:  every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen.  The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of a windy day never to return more –
every thing presses on

In the almost unimaginably vast trove of Jeffersoniana out there, it is, other than a few inventory lists and the like, the only surviving item written in Martha Jefferson’s own hand.

Jefferson himself – whether before or after her death is not known – then wrote out the remaining lines at the bottom of the page:

– and every
time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which
follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation
which we are shortly to make!

Martha’s death threw Jefferson into a depression from which friends feared he would never recover.  “He kept his room for three weeks,” his daughter Patsy wrote, and “walked almost incessantly night and day, only lying down occasionally, when nature was completely exhausted, on a pallet that had been brought in during his long fainting fit.”  When he at last he left his room, “he rode out and from that time he was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain on the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods.”  A “miserable kind of existence . . . too burthensome to be borne,” Jefferson wrote, “. . . all my plans of comfort and happiness reversed by one single event and nothing answering in prospect before me but a gloom unbrightened with one cheerful expectation.”

It wasn’t entirely relevant to my purposes, in the book - but so touching I felt I couldn’t exclude it.

I never did, however, find a way to sneak in the loveliest piece of Jeffersoniana out there — the bookend, as it were, to Martha’s deathbed scene.  In 1818, when informed of the death of Abigail Adams, Jefferson sent his condolences to her husband — with whom he had just a few years before resumed correspondence after nearly fifteen years (fifteen years that had been filled with rancor and bile on both sides).  It’s a hard genre, the letter of condolence, and Jefferson writes the most beautiful one I’ve ever read:

“The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of Oct. 20 had given me ominous foreboding.  Tried myself, in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure.  The same trials have taught me that, for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicines.  I will not therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more, where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both that the term is not very distant at which we are to deposit, in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again.  God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.”