Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"I Contain Multitudes:" Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman





Thomas Jefferson pretty much defined the American character all by himself. Disciplined but a spendthrift who loved beautiful things; dutiful but expansive in mind, in body, and in national aspirations; a spirited writer but an uninspiring speaker who delivered his State of the Union address not in an oration but in a letter to Congress; and a social philosopher who condemned slavery but could never quite afford to free most of his own slaves, Jefferson encompassed the inconsistencies and breadth of spirit that have since characterized his country. As the poet Walt Whitman put it, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

To Jefferson we owe some basic big ideas--equality of opportunity, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech, and perhaps manifest destiny. His were the virtues of the educated class--the love of languages, music, literature, and science. He quarreled harshly with John Adams, but his constant correspondence with his presidential predecessor ended in a frank exchange of ideas and a deep friendship; and Jefferson's sense of noblesse oblige inspired him to replace the Library of Congress' books lost in the War of 1812, but the need to fund his varied pursuits required him to sell rather than donate his personal library. He loved fine wines and an elegant table, but prescribed vegetarianism and doted on a diet of peas from his extensive gardens. He designed the University of Virginia's first campus, but withdrew from public life after his presidency. And his various internal contradictions compelled him to take up and drop varied intellectual pursuits throughout his life.

Maira Kalman's Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014) conveys a sense of Thomas Jefferson's fabled foibles and enduring accomplishments and the impact of his beliefs upon the nation Jefferson helped found in a most attractive picture book format. Kalman's narration carefully enumerates the varied aspects of Jefferson's character and interests in simple, almost childlike prose, while her expressionistic illustrations ironically reveal more than her text: on one page Kalman reports that Jefferson visited Monticello's kitchen once a week to wind the clock, while the page portrays four slaves doing all the work to fill that fine table with no sign of their otherwise engaged master. Another page simply shows a telling facsimile of the Jefferson's slave ledger listing the Hemings family. As Kalman says in her closing. . .

I you want to understand
this country and its people

and what it means to be Optimistic
and Complex and Tragic and Wrong and
Courageous, you need to go to Monticello.

As a child's first biography of our third president, Kalman's is an exceptional picture book. The author also includes a Notes section, with thumbnail descriptions of the people, places, and events of Thomas Jefferson's life, and the endpapers that show the opening paragraph of his Declaration of Independence, with its enduring words, beginning with "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."

Maira Kalman is also the author-illustrator of the notable Looking at Lincoln (See my February, 2013, review here) and her insightful exploration of ideas and leaders in the course of American democracy, And the Pursuit of Happiness.

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