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Portrait of a Gentleman at Home

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

Jefferson and Monticello.
By Paul Wilstach. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company. $5.00.

The archives are giving up their dead. Mr. Gamal ­iel Bradford, in America, and Mr. Lytton Strachey, in England, have for some years been exceedingly busy with the refleshing of eminent ghosts; and these two gentlemen, who somehow seem to mingle and confuse them ­selves with the subjects of their biographical conjurations, have been but two prominent individuals of a host. Gue-dalla, Beer, and Minnigerode are three of many others who have done distinctive portraits from the past.

It is an indisputable fact that the writing of lives and his ­torical episodes is an art that has been on the ascendant. A more personal tone and an amazing ability to present inti ­mate detail have given to such literature a new charm and power. The most apparent general criticism that can be brought against it is a tendency toward an old-womanly gossipyness. Occasionally the vision of Mr. Bradford, lean ­ing from his chair to whisper some fragment into the inclined ear of Mr. Strachey, presents itself, and will not be denied. The very technique that has made these gentlemen so well known has also been their most noticeable flaw, being too often and too frankly repeated. A bit of intimate favorable observation or fact mixed with a bit of equally intimate ad ­verse matter, to the end of creating a vivid human figure, slightingly sums up the method of these writers. But so well is their manner known that the master of the mario ­nettes is seen in the movement of the puppets.

Mr. Paul Wilstach has avoided such betraying fame in his writing. Already acknowledged for such books as “Po ­tomac Landings,” “Richard Mansfield,” “Mount Vernon,” the author’s ability is now evident in another work, “Jeffer ­son and Monticello.” Nowhere in this work, however, is his technique so apparent as to be a sound of the author’s footsteps; and only infrequently is the author visible. If this limits the brilliance of Wilstach’s style, it certainly increases its charm and makes more pleasing the resultant creation.

“Jefferson and Monticello” is a portrait of a gentleman at home, and it is as happily achieved as if the artist had been a privileged member of the gentleman’s household. Jefferson has long been hidden behind several disguises. His less favorable biographers, in the name of justice, have made much of a headstrong leader of hoi polloi, whose economic visions were somewhat too hysterical; and his defenders have destroyed a gallant man in creating a political Olympian. None of them have been wisely concerned with a gentleman calling for his candle when evening darkened the blue hills about Monticello. Wilstach has remedied this neglect.

In a quiet manner the writer has opened the unique doors of Jefferson’s home and shown the father of deathless ideals fondly engaged in living among the warm, intimate, mortal things which he so loved. The political radical, the diplo ­matic giant, are both subdued; and Jefferson, the admirable and lovable Virginian, lives. He moves in a world of au ­tumn and winter and spring, where people, with the pathetic charm of momentary humanity, are his friends and his great concern. For perhaps the first time, the twinkle in the cor ­ners of Jefferson’s mouth is accurately traced to facts in his life; and we learn that the eager young scholar, home for a holiday from William and Mary College, can lament his failures in love as humanly as might another unimbittered Hamlet of any age.

Few pictures of great men have seemed so delightful as Wilstach’s sketch of Jefferson’s trip with his bride, up a snow covered road, to his honeymoon house on the top of the then uncompleted Monticello. The tableau of Jeffer ­son reading to his grandchildren or playing games with them assumes a Rembrandtic richness of detail and human sym ­pathy. Even the statesman, the idealist, and the educator are not unpainted in the series, but they are related to the gentleman at home. Through the mellow motley of Vir ­ginia autumn, through the disagreeable winter, through the sudden glory of spring about Monticello, we see such a Jef ­ferson as has rarely, if ever before, been created for us. Vis ­iting the Madisons, talking with neighboring farmers, in ­vestigating the wonder of all the world at his elbow, moves a thoroughly human and sympathetic Jefferson. Wilstach has beautifully restored reality to a great man.


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