Jefferson: A Novel
© 1998 William Brant
In the late 1780s, William Short put pen to paper to create a biography of his boss and mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Then serving as ambassador to France, Jefferson was already a seasoned American politician, having previously been in the Congress that declared independence, and shortly thereafter held office as Virginia’s governor. That biography is a novel going in two directions; the main thread follows Jefferson’s social life in France during the 1780s, with interruptions by Short to tell Jefferson’s story from boyhood to his travels abroad. The text is heavy with dialogue; the major activity is talking before dinner, or during it, or after it — and the expressions seem drawn mostly from Jefferson’s letters. Because the storyteller is Jefferson’s protégé, is a tale largely sympathetic to the quiet man whose presence looms so large over his friends and American history; Short puts several stories about Jefferson to rest, offering his own interpretation of events. It’s a strange novel, one that doesn’t so much go somewhere as give readers a chance to spend dinner after dinner with Jefferson, coming to know his mind and the stories of his life. Other personalities like John Adams (a man of “granite flecked with sugar”), Ben Franklin, and the Marquis de LaFayette are regular companions. The heavy but agile use of Jefferson’s actual writings, and the abundance of historical characters, make it a book worth reading for anyone passionate about the Revolution and its lingering meaning. Like American Sphinx, it’s more of a study in character, but this time from a more intimate angle — face to face over a course of French fare.