Sunday, April 22, 2007

More Hitchens

Since I just mentioned Christopher Hitchens's Jefferson biography, here are some thoughts I set down about the book while reading it:

It's certainly not the first biography of Jefferson you'd want to read -- it assumes a general knowledge of the man and events. If you don't know of him, Hitchens is a highly opinionated and highly controversial -- and highly amusing -- commentator (among other things, he wrote books savaging Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton), and it's fascinating to see what he chooses to emphasize and how he chooses to characterize people and events. He admires Jefferson a bit too much to blaze away with both barrels, although he doesn't pull punches where appropriate, but he's most fun when attacking other targets he really despises:
Dumas Malone, Jefferson's most revered biographer, continued in this tone as late as 1985, writing that for Madison Hemings to claim descent from his master was no better than "the pedigree printed on the numerous stud-horse bills that can be seen posted around during the Spring season. No matter how scrubby the stock or whether the horse has any known pedigree, owners invented an exalted stock for their property." In other words, for many decades historians felt themselves able to discount [James] Callender's story because it had originated with a contemptible bigot who had a political agenda. But one cannot survey the steady denial, by a phalanx of historians, of the self-evident facts without appreciating that racism, sexism, and political partisanship have also been manifested in equally gross ways, and by more apparently 'objective' means, and at the very heart of our respectable academic culture.

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