Classic Historical Takedowns pt. 1

Fawn Brodie’s 1974 book… Thomas Jefferson; An Intimate History reignited the Sally Hemings rumors and introduced the world to the quackery of psychobiography (using pop-psychology to interpret words or actions when there’s no historical evidence.)  The book was a commercial success and became the toast of elite literary and social circles.  Brodie and her publisher went to great lengths to guarantee that none of the three most respected Jefferson scholars,  Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, and Julian Boyd would review her book.  Someone had to speak up in defense of historical scholarship, and that was the great Garry Wills.  His review in the New York Times is now the stuff of legend…..

Two vast things, each wondrous in itself, combine to make this book a prodigy–the author’s industry, and her ignorance. One can only be so intricately wrong by deep study and long effort, enough to make Ms. Brodie the fasting hermit and very saint of ignorance. The result has an eerie perfection, as if all the world’s greatest builders had agreed to rear, with infinite skill, the world’s ugliest building.

Start with ignorance, as the most understandable part of the book. She regularly treats us to sub-freshman absurdity–thus: “We do not even know for certain if Jefferson signed on the second of July, when the Declaration was formally–voted, or on the fourth, as he later insisted. There is still controversy over this, though Julian Boyd makes out a good case for the fourth….” She has tangled up as two things the three events at issue:

Not only does she misconceive all three elements in the problem, considered singly; she then collapses them into two (the wrong two for her purpose) and says that we must choose one or the other from these wrong two on the basis of inapplicable norms. Then, just to complete our amazement, she tells us that Julian Boyd has made “a good case” on the matter–though his case has nothing to do with the garbled mess she has made of things. Error on this: scale, and in this detail, does not come easily. There is a skill involved.

And much nerve. She has managed to write a long and complex study of Jefferson without displaying any acquaintance with eighteenth-century plantation conditions, political thought, literary conventions, or scientific categories – all of which greatly concerned Jefferson. She constantly finds double meanings in colonial language, basing her argument on the present usage of key words. She often mistakes the first meaning of a word before assigning it an improbable second meaning and an impossible third one. When Hamilton assures Washington that he will do nothing to “endanger a feud” with Jefferson, she calls this a “curious slip of the pen” – though the word more often meant “incur the danger of” in Hamilton’s time than “cause danger to ” as in our own.

Ms Brodie seems never to have heard of the OED. When a slave (Robert Hemings who may have been Jefferson’s son) was freed by purchase, Jefferson wrote that the purchaser had “debauched him from me.” Ms. Brodie calls this a “curious phrase”; yet the literal first meaning of the word in Jefferson’s time, in English as in French, was “to turn or lead away, entice, seduce from one to whom service or allegiance is due.” The phrase can only be “curious” to one who has excluded the possibility that words still in use can have had different meanings two hundred years ago.

Ms. Brodie delights in the small titillation of finding sexual references wherever possible. It seems a shame to deprive her of such innocent fun; but the game becomes tedious to anyone who has not got her endless appetite for it. “He began his Syllabus with a curious sentence [by now we know what "curious" means to her]: ‘In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.’ Could the repetition of the word ‘corruption’ suggest that he was not so much contemplating the ‘corruptions of Chritianity’ or the ‘corruptions of reason’ as the corruptions of Thomas Jefferson? That he was defensive and anxious shows not only in the document itself but in…”

That last sentence is typical of Ms Brodie’s hint-and-run method – to ask a rhetorical question, and then proceed on the assumption that it has been settled in her favor, making the first surmise a basis for second and third ones in a towering rickety structure of unsupported conjecture. Why should Jefferson use the “curious” word corruption in this context? Because it was a commonplace of deistic thought that a pristine Christianity had been corrupted by medieval additions. Because one of the books that moved Jefferson to this composition was Priestley’s Corruptions of Christianity. Because it was the natural and established usage in this kind of discussion. Ah, but why repeat the word? Because Jefferson is instituting a series of comparisons–by contrast–and his opening sentence poses a neatly balanced paradox–how ancient reason was corrupted by the vulgar, and Christian faith was corrupted by the learned. The sentence is as carefully wrought as a couplet, and the repetition is as inevitable to it as rhyme within the couplet.

One more example, from the thousands: Ms Brodie argues that Jefferson had, by 1788, fallen in love with the fifteen-year-old quarteroon slave, Sally Hemings, who accompanied his daughter to meet him in France. She offers as “evidence” of his “special preoccupation” with Sally the “singular” fact that he used the word “mulatto” eight times in twenty-five pages of his travel account that spring. But all these references are to the color of the soil, and the OED gives that use of the word as peculiarly American and eighteenth-century. In the journals of his European travel, Jefferson regularly keeps note of the different regions’ soil under four different categories: color, consistency (mould, rotten rock, loam, clay, gravel, sand), quality (rich, good, middling, poor, barren), and crops borne on it.

The color notation is the most frequently used of these categories, and it covers this spectrum: black, dark, dark brown, reddish brown, red, mulatto, gray, white. Given that mode of classification, the repetition of mulatto in the twenty-five pages she refers to means no more than the repetition of red (seven times) or gray (three times) – unless we are to assume that Jefferson deliberately falsified his own records just to relieve his psyche from the strain of not repeating “mulatto” for the sixth or seventh or eighth time, in obscure tribute to Sally. So much forthe argument that it is “singular” (why not octuple?) for a word to be “repeated” eight times in twenty-five pages.

Well, does the psychic revelation derive, not from repetition of the word but from its choice in the first place? After all, though it was a use common in agrarian contexts, Jefferson could have chosen another word. Did he choose this one (instead of yellowish brown, which it seems to stand for) because he had just fallen in love with Sally? Unfortunately for Ms. Brodie’s thesis, he had used “mulatto” in exactly the same way during his tour of southern France, the spring before Sally arrived in Paris. The category already existed in his mind. Ms. Brodie tries to solve this difficulty by stressing, once again, the repetition. In the tour of France, she tells us, Jefferson used the word “mulatto” only once in forty-eight of Boyd’s pages, as opposed to eight times in the twenty-five pages of his Holland tour.

Well, as usual, Ms. Brodie has her facts wrong, even before she loads them with unsustainable surmise: She refers to “the single use of the word ‘mulatto’” at Boyd XI, 415, in the tour of France, and cannot find a second use at XI, 429. There is no other term that might have done service for mulatto in the account of the first tour, so the naive might suppose that the varying rate of use had something to do with the different soil conditions in France and in Holland.

Ms. Brodie has delivered us from such naïveté, however, so we know how to read Mr. Jefferson’s accounts. For instance. on the seven-week tour of Holland he used the word “red” only seven times; but on the nine-week tour of southern France he used it (or “reddish”) thirty-eight times. Such a disparity must reflect “special preoccupation” of some sort, according to the Brodie method. Since his daughter had Jefferson’s reddish hair and complexion, and he was arranging for her to come join him, the soil descriptions are really covert expressions of an incest drive. How on earth did Brodie miss this “curious” fact?

It should be clear, by now, what fuels the tremendous industry this author poured into her work – her obsession with all the things she can find or invent about Jefferson’s sex life. Since that life does not seem a very extensive or active one, Ms. Brodie has to use whatever hints she can contrive In particular, she reads practically the whole Jeffersonian corpus as a secret code referring to what is presented as the longest, most stable, most satisfying love in Jefferson’s life–that with Sally Hemings.  NYT Review of Books 1974

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2 responses to “Classic Historical Takedowns pt. 1

  1. Man, I remember how popular her book was…and still is I think.

  2. Pingback: Rogues Gallery- historian edition | Practically Historical

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