American Sphinx The Character of Thomas Jefferson

ISBN-10: 0679764410

ISBN-13: 9780679764410

Edition: 1996

Authors: Joseph J. Ellis
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Description: For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight--and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1896); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity--now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety--has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person. For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was "as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing." In American Sphinx, Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today "hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams." For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large--a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles. From Ellis we learn that Jefferson sang incessantly under his breath; that he delivered only two public speeches in eight years as president, while spending ten hours a day at his writing desk; that sometimes his political sensibilities collided with his domestic agenda, as when he ordered an expensive piano from London during a boycott (and pledged to "keep it in storage"). We see him relishing such projects as the nailery at Monticello that allowed him to interact with his slaves more palatably, as pseudo-employer to pseudo-employees. We grow convinced that he preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than in the actual bedchamber. We watch him exhibiting both great depth and great shallowness, combining massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, piercing insights with self-deception on the grandest scale. We understand why we should neither beatify him nor consign him to the rubbish heap of history, though we are by no means required to stop loving him. He is Thomas Jefferson, after all--our very own sphinx.

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Book details

List price: $17.95
Copyright year: 1996
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 4/7/1998
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 464
Size: 5.25" wide x 8.00" long x 1.00" tall
Weight: 0.990
Language: English

Joseph J. Ellis was born in Washington, D.C. on July 18, 1943. He earned a B.A. from the College of William and Mary in 1965 and a M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Yale University in 1969. He was an instructor in the department of American studies at Yale University from 1968 to 1969 and an assistant professor in the department of history and social studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1969 to 1972. He began his career at Mount Holyoke College as assistant professor in the department of history in 1972 and was made professor in 1979. Ellis was dean of the faculty at Mount Holyoke from 1980 to 1990. He is also a Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He has published articles, essays, reviews, and opinion pieces in such periodicals as American Heritage, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Civilization. He has appeared on C-SPAN and Fox News and was a participant in the 1997 Ken Burns PBS documentary "Thomas Jefferson." In 1997, Ellis published American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and in 1998 he co-authored the article in Nature that accompanied the controversial study of the descendants of Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemmings. He has received several awards including the National Book Award in Nonfiction for American Sphinx in 1997 and the Pulitzer Prize for History for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation in 2001. Ellis' other works include Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, Random House, 2013); First Family: Abigail and John Adams, 2010; American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, 2007; His Excellency: George Washington, 2004; After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, 2000; What Did the Declaration Declare? (Historians at Work), editor and contributor, 1999.

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