The Peripatetic Reviewer
THOMAS JEFFERSON by Norton, $12.50
This book, lively in its detail and speculative in its argument, is a challenge to Jefferson worshippers. It is subtitled “An Intimate History,” and in her use of the word “intimate” Mrs. Brodie draws a line between Jefferson’s dearest intellectual concerns and the concerns of his heart, which he took pains to conceal.
From these pages emerges a very tall, sandy-haired figure whose intellect was striking in any company. Jefferson was not an orator; he spoke with his pen, and was capable of such power of concentration that his constitution for Virginia and his unabridged Declaration of Independence were written within six weeks. He was accomplished in all pursuits except the military, and perhaps his greatest failure was as the war governor of his state. Throughout maturity he was torn in two directions, love of his family and the bucolic life at Monticello pulling against his passion for politics. At Monticello he delighted in riding, playing the violin, reading, remodeling the house, and gardening with such meticulous notes in his Garden Book. But isolation brought with it depression only to be relieved when he plunged back into political activity. He was thin-skinned, would not quarrel openly, was distressed by newspaper attacks, and at times of crisis suffered painfully from migraine which began at sunrise and subsided at sunset. In Mrs. Brodie’s knowledgeable and lively prose the fascinator lives again.
Mrs. Brodie avers that he was a man of strong sexuality and it is on the questions arising in his domestic and emotional life that she concentrates her literary psychoanalysis. Jefferson’s father died when the boy was fourteen, and from then until he was twenty-seven he lived with his mother, with whom his relations were cool and clouded. Perhaps she was a Tory, as the biographer infers, and perhaps he did strike back at her in one or two phrases in the Declaration. Of far greater interest to me is why his Declaration was cut—“mutilated”—and for what motives, which is not explained.
His marriage to Martha Wayles was a love match; at her pregnancies, always dangerous, he dropped everything to be at her bedside, and as long as she lived, their “uncheckered happiness” is beyond doubt. At her death he was desolate. In time he transferred his family devotion to his oldest daughter, Martha, who for years was the mistress of Monticello.
But he never remarried and for what reason Mrs. Brodie goes searching in the skeleton closet. That the widower in Paris should have had a fling with Maria Cosway seems to me highly likely and hardly worth so much space; in the elaboration Mrs. Brodie slights Jefferson’s other “intimate” concerns, notably his correspondence with Madison while the Constitutional Convention was taking place in Philadelphia. But the allegation that “Dusky Sally” Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress over many years is intended as the real shocker. Sally was the mulatto daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law and hence his wife’s half-sister, miscegenation among the gentry being popular but unmentionable. As a comely adolescent, with pale coloring and straight hair, Sally escorted Jefferson’s daughter Polly to Paris and for twenty-six months thereafter lived in the Jefferson household. When they returned to America she was pregnant, whether by T.J., as the biographer believes—and as the circumstantial evidence suggests—or by someone in Jefferson’s employ. This baby died, but at home Sally took exclusive charge of her master’s bedroom-sitting room; the children who followed were white-skinned, and according to impartial observers showed marked resemblances to the great man. Jefferson’s nephews, the Carr brothers, were libertines and had the run of Monticello at periods when he was not there, and they could have been responsible for the paternity. Mrs. Brodie’s thesis affirms that the liaison was responsible for Jefferson’s ambivalence toward the slaves he owned, but not toward the prohibition of slavery in any new state, for which he voted in the Congress at Annapolis. She drives her thesis so didactically that I tend to back away from it wondering at this distance, “Does it really matter?”
FLO: A BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED by Johns Hopkins University Press, $ 15.00
My, what an energetic, likable cuss was Frederick Law Olmsted— and what a long time it took him to gravitate into his divinely appointed career as America’s foremost landscape architect!
Young Fred was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822 with a silver spoon and the most tolerant father in New England. The boy was sent to a succession of Congregational ministers to prepare him for Yale, a drudgery which resulted in a lifelong suspicion of piety. He also suffered an unlucky attack of sumac poisoning so debilitating and harmful to his eyes that he ceased to pursue a degree. Fred, his father, and young brother John were omnivorous travelers and together explored most of the picturesque sites in the Northeast, an experience which settled like a slowly ripening seed in Fred’s mind.
When his eyes were restored, Fred, fired by Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, signed on as “a green hand” in the China trade, but one voyage to Canton—a harsh captain, two months of gales rounding the Cape, and the vile food—was enough to cure him of that. Back at the starting point he elected to be a farmer and father bought him a $13,000 layout at Sachem’s Head on Staten Island. When farming palled, Fred left the chores to the hired man, and hied off with John on a walking trip in England and on the Continent; the London parks and the glorious English country estates excited him and prompted him to write. His Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England was published by Putnam in his thirtieth year, suggesting a literary career if father would ante another $5000 for a share in the firm. Fred was not a successful editor, but his observant books, written after further travels through the South, and in Texas, were teaching him the country, stirring his hatred of slavery—and attracting notice. Then at long last he was introduced to Andrew Jackson Downing, a young nurseryman in whose book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America, Fred heard his calling. It was about time, as father was running out of money.
For the next thirty-five years, with his initiative, his love of natural beauty, his knowledge of horticulture, and unslacking persuasion, Olmsted was to awaken city after city to the need for what the English call “green lungs,” and the country at large to the need for creating national parks. He began as the first superintendent of Central Park in New York, an area whose rocky slopes and swamps had been appropriated but not laid out. With his partner Vaux, his plans for its development won first prize in the competition, and the beauty and versatility of its development became a model for the country. The work on Central Park was still in progress when Olmsted was called away to be the moving spirit in the Sanitary Commission which performed such wonders in the care of the wounded in the Civil War. Even before Appomattox he was appointed a commissioner to map the territory and plan the roads for the Yosemite Reservation and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove.
It is hard to realize the apathy and political corruption F.L.O. had to contend with. He envisioned the sequence of public parks in Boston, and left his signature on the Fenway and the Arboretum; on Chicago’s South Park and Drexel Boulevard; on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, and parks in Cleveland, Montreal, and Brooklyn; and it has been said that but for Olmsted there would be no State Reservation at Niagara today. George Templeton Strong, the great diarist, called him “decidedly the most remarkable specimen of human nature with whom I have ever been brought into close relations,” and what Mrs. Roper has brought out so admirably in her monumental biography are Olmsted’s strength, his vision, and his inexhaustible enthusiasm. Her book is long, indeed overlong, because it tries to cover so much social and horticultural history in its celebration of a concept in conservation, Olmsted remarked before his death that every public work he had done was being despoiled by ignorant management—but we are grateful for what survives.
THE LAST BUTTERFLY by Bobbs-Merrill, $6.95
This very well written short novel with its Czech background is the poignant story of Pagliacci in prison. The two fortresses of Terezin, built by Empress Maria Theresa in the days of the Austrian empire, were converted by the Nazis into a concentration camp for Jews and political prisoners of all nationalities. To it is sent Antonin Karas, the famous clown. His wife has been dead a year and his mask of humor, which shields his real self, has been wearing thin. At the end of a recent performance, as he was taking his bow, his hair fell over his forehead and when he straightened up he could not resist the impulse to do a caricature of Hitler. It was risky to earn that laughter, for the word got out and in a matter of days he was ordered to Terezin on the pretext that he was to entertain the children there.
The fortresses which had been built to accommodate five thousand troops were now a crowded hungry village of sixty thousand, living with a half-illusion of release or escape and with a minimum of care for the children. The Jewish Elders, the supposed governors of the camp, sit late trying to decide who shall be included in the weekly Transport to Auschwitz, and there are always a few who manage to bribe their way out of the train. Ironically, Lagerkommandant Bürger views his charge as “the model Jewish state” and intends to have Antonin perform for a captive audience when the camp is inspected by the Red Cross. But the angry comedian is so insubordinate that the Kommandant orders him, a doctor, and Vera, the young spirited teacher, to be locked up in isolation with a shipment of half-dead Polish children which has just arrived from the East. To revive the youngsters, the trio are called out of themselves, and the life and love which they infuse within the walls give this book its meaning. Now the clown with his battered violin case subdues his rage to become the leader and Vera, who would not yield to the Nazis, yields to him and the children.
The grim, deliberate cruelty is opposed by the brave resourcefulness of the spirit, as it must have been in concentration camps everywhere. The resistance is gay to read and the children hope, as their elders do, that somehow the gods will intervene. The ending, which is contrived, is a concession to that hope.
Of the 140,000 who actually passed through Terezin on their way to Auschwitz, only thirteen hundred still live and of the children hardly a hundred. The novelist talked to some of them for the details; the poetry, and the pathos, are charged with truth.