Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson; the Art of Power.
Sorry, but I just can’t take seriously a biography that begins like this: “He woke at first light. Lean and loose-limbed, Thomas Jefferson tossed back his sheets in his rooms at Conrad and McMunn’s boardinghouse on Capitol Hill, swung his long legs out of bed, and plunged his feet into a basin of cold water – a lifelong habit he believed good for his health."
Although there is over a page of notes at the back of the book verifying the content of these two sentences, covering every single fact except Jefferson’s tossing back of his sheets, it is an opening that does not inspire confidence that the book is going to be serious, well-written and pithy, which – off the top of my head – are the qualities I want in a history or biography.
My doubts were confirmed later by the aside in this sentence: “Yet the two men [Jefferson and John Adams] – and, in time, Abigail, Adams’s wonderful wife – were to forge one of the greatest and most complicated alliances in American history.” What does “wonderful wife” mean? If the author thinks of Abigail Adams as “wonderful” there should be a paragraph, either as a note or earlier in the text, explaining the adjective. My feeling on reading this – probably curmudgeonly and cynically mistaken – was that Meacham was referring not to Abigail Adams at all, but to Laura Linney, who played Abigail, as “wonderful,” in the PBS series on John Adams. Come to think of it, there is no justification for the vague “one of the greatest” describing Jefferson and Adams’ alliance.
I’ll keep reading, though. Meacham’s description of the political machinations among the founders is detailed and nuanced, as long as you forgive his careful and mildly patronizing All Things Considered style. (That’s NPR’s daily news program, which seems aimed at intelligent and curious eleven-year-olds.) But the book is not giving me much pleasure.
Great American history: The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick.
After writing the above I checked Meacham’s Wikipedia listing. He’s a big-shot at Random House, an erstwhile editor of Newsweek and Time and maintains a connection with public broadcasting, all of which explains an awful lot.
Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson; the Art of Power.
In a passage in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen anticipated Freud by two centuries.
It is a brainstorm apropos of nothing. Ostensibly, it follows up the musings of the novel’s protagonist, Fanny Price, on changing landscapes, but is really a non sequitur, just a profound perception – pretty much identical to Freud’s – too exciting not to get down on paper.
Here it is, with its surrounding context.
“Three years ago this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or an ornament; and, perhaps, in another three years we may be forgetting – almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at other, so bewildered and so weak; and at other again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way – but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”
Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say; and Fanny, perceiving it, brought back her own mind to what she thought must interest.
“It may seem impertinent in me to praise, but I must admire the taste Mrs. Grant has shown in all this.”
Of course, with the self-confidence of a great artist living in a stable society, Austen did not feel compelled to construct a cockamamie theory to explain the mystery.
Watching HBO’s Parade’s End last night, Anna Livia Plurabelle reminded me that Sylvia Tietjen’s name for her maid, Hello Central, is the name given by the Connecticut Yankee’s wife to their new-born girl child because it is something he murmurs in his sleep.
Ford Madox Ford was an aficionado of American literature – he founded the Transatlantic Review – so Sylvia’s Hello Central surely is a tribute to Mark Twain.
The script for the HBO mini-series is by Tom Stoppard. (HBO continues to spell out the word as “miniseries,” which looks to me like mi-ni-zer-ies, and will ever be pronounced by me as such, but I notice that the New York Times has, at last, introduced the required hyphen.) At first I thought Stoppard’s version was a bit telegraphic, considering the density of the novel, but soon all the snippets of scenes and dialogue meshed.
HBO’s Tietjens was also at first disconcerting, because he does not have the bulky avoirdupois of Ford’s protagonist, and when he is referred to by Sylvia as “that big ox” and elsewhere with adjectives befitting a largish man, the discrepancy stands out. But the HBO Tietjens’ large face, weak chin and jowls are right enough, and considering the rugged, manly alternatives that probably presented themselves, I think casting did a pretty good job. (Tietjens is Ford, no doubt about it.)
If you haven’t read Parade’s End, you probably should before seeing the HBO version, but it is four novel’s long, so you can be forgiven if you don’t.
And, if you haven’t read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, thinking that it probably was a quick slapstick farce like the Bing Crosby movie, you’re missing a warm-hearted satire that is Twain at his best.