BOOK REVIEW: His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer by Fred Kaplan (New York City, NY: HarperCollins, 2022)
Thomas Jefferson was many things. Some of his best known roles were as Founding Father, president, governor, secretary of state, the only vice president who was of a different political persuasion than the sitting president, foreign minister, slaveholder, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. One of Jefferson’s major roles in American history is that of a writer, including serving as the primary writer for the Declaration of Independence, which is one of the most quoted texts in existence. That being said, comparatively little credence is given to Jefferson’s literary works. Throughout the years, historians and the public alike have been more focused on his role as a politician, his interest in architecture, or his troubled and contradictory relationship with freedom and slavery. Fred Kaplan’s newest book, His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer, takes on the daunting task of considering Jefferson as an author. At the micro level, this book is a unique take on Thomas Jefferson’s life by examining it through the lens of impact of the third president’s writings. At the macro level, Kaplan’s work is so much more, as is his subject matter, dealing with Jefferson’s writings as they impact the American Revolution and beyond, and, more largely, the rest of the world.
Through nearly 600 pages split into fifteen chapters, Kaplan looks at each of Jefferson’s major works in detail, ranging from the Declaration of Independence to Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson’s only true book, to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, to the “Jefferson Bible” (entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth), and examines them on a public and personal level. Kaplan asks not only how these works came to be, but what impact they had on Jefferson, his friends, and family, and his country. Regarding all of Jefferson’s letters, which number in the tens of thousands, Kaplan treats readers to a wide selection in his references and pull quotes.
What strikes the reader is how elegantly Jefferson used his writings to express so many different facets of his life. Each chapter of the book references a chapter of Jefferson’s life, starting with his earliest years, wherein the young Virginian wrote everything, particularly in the form of lists. Kaplan follows his list-making with Jefferson’s first recorded foray into the public record, when as a newly-elected member of the House of Burgesses, Jefferson was tasked with writing a resolution of thanks to the recently-appointed royal governor, Norborne Berkeley, Baron Botetourt. This close examination of all of Jefferson’s works continues throughout his life and throughout Kaplan’s book, even when Jefferson’s writings become more and more scarce. Jefferson’s writing waned during his tenure as Virginia’s first governor or his post-presidential life. However, no matter how many writings Jefferson may have produced during these periods, Kaplan always found some piece of Jefferson’s written word to express his situation at the time.
Though often we think of people of the past as being more apathetic or stoic and believe people may never have experienced what we feel and see now, Kaplan truly demolishes this thought. Jefferson wrote about many of the feelings so many struggle with today: loss (though he rarely mentioned his wife Martha by name, it is clear in many letter about whom he is discussing), love (in reference to Maria Cosway). Jefferson also wrote to educate, to propagate an idea or political theory, and so much more. As Kaplan writes: “As a writer, Jefferson identifies, isolates, and projects his thoughts and feelings into opposite corners, like opponents about to fight it out.” Author Stephen King, who is not quite as influential or masterful, but presently possibly as popular, has written: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Kaplan clearly illustrates that Jefferson held the same opinion.
Kaplan not only utilizes Jefferson’s writings to inform his own thoughts on Jefferson, but the emeritus professor also draws from numerous other sources to tell his tale of Jefferson’s writings. There is a fair amount of focus on other non-Jefferson writings that made an impact on the world (the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution and various state constitutions, Common Sense, and more). Kaplan explains how they affected not only Jefferson personally or politically, or in the broader world, but also Jefferson’s own writings. Kaplan uses the same methodology regarding letters and other documents received by Jefferson. The inclusion of this process allows for a more well-rounded look at Jefferson’s life, and the era as a whole.
One complaint about this book is the odd sourcing technique Kaplan uses. Instead of using standard end or footnotes, or even in-text citations, like what is used in the Modern Language Association’s format, Kaplan does not use notes at all. Instead, in the back of the book, there is a list of his citations that forces the reader to not only search for the source, but also the page number. While this citation method still provides readers with the sources used, the reader can never be quite sure what information from a particular page is pulled from a specific source. Furthermore, there are many pages of the book, and larger sections even, that have very few, if any, citations. This method of sourcing raises a level of concern for this reader, not to cast doubt on Kaplan’s ethics, but because it makes it difficult to further research the various aspects of what Kaplan wrote.
One of Kaplan’s main points is that so often we consider Jefferson’s writings to have been completed by 1789. It is safe to say that Jefferson’s most influential works, items like the Declaration of Independence, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, and Notes on the State of Virginia, among others, were all completed before Washington became president. These are the writings of Jefferson that are most talked about, truly by any measure. Kaplan argues that these are not Jefferson’s only writings to consider. Remember, Jefferson lived until 1826, fifty years after what most would consider his greatest work was issued (the Declaration of Independence), and nearly forty years after what is most often referred to as Jefferson’s last great work, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, in 1789, while minister to France. After this date, Jefferson penned numerous other works, like the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, his own version of the Bible, and his inaugural addresses, the second of which Kaplan spends a good portion of time on, and says needs more scholarly attention. As Kaplan illustrates, virtually all of Jefferson’s writings have valuable lessons to be learned.