Thomas Jefferson: The Author of America… by Christopher Hitchens, Harper Collins, New York, 2006.
It is awfully difficult to review a scholarly… work by a wordsmith as eminent as Mr. Hitchens. Rarely is prose this well crafted, little criticism can be levied against it from a grammatical or stylistic perception. This thin volume on Jefferson is forthright and at times cogent. Hitchens admires his subject, and leaves little doubt as to the book’s intent. The criticism lies in his interpretation of Jefferson- the scholarship is questionable at key points, diluting the effectiveness of his arguments.
During the book tour… Hitchens proclaimed his Founding Father biography “came complete with genitals.” The implication was that his study would not cast Jefferson in marble, but show all of his faults, even his alleged dalliance with Sally Hemings. An odd inclusion considering the author’s intention of explaining how Jefferson “authored” America. But even the most talented writers seem unable to resist the perverse pleasure of speculating on the romantic entanglements of a man who went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his. Hitchens believes the two facets are inseparable, but his book never explains why.
Hitchens desperately wants Jefferson to be an atheist… in fact, Jefferson’s perceived antagonism to organized religion is what prompted Harper Collins’ invitation to write this volume. Hitchens discovers what many atheists and agnostics have learned- that Jefferson did have religious beliefs-albeit, not traditional Christianity. Not deterred, Hitchens rues, “As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment.”
Beyond these critical points, Hitchens produces a… repetitively modern biography of Jefferson- complex, frustrating, flawed-yet essential. The world lost one of its great writers in 2010 when Hitchens passed. When the younger generation looks to discover his work, this undistinguished effort should be excused.