Who Tells Your Story–Hamilton

img_0785In case you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Hamilton: An American Musical by now. It’s a Broadway show that’s become a cultural phenomenon. First, let me get one important thing off my chest: it’s bloody brilliant. It is a work of genius that approaches a historical subject with real wisdom and insight, with humor and pathos (I think it’s impossible to have the one without the other). And yes, I am as obsessed as the next person with Hamilton. In fact, I have a rather possessive feeling about it, because it’s a piece of historical fiction and, well, I’m a historical fiction writer. Getting people psyched and enthusiastic about American history? Jesus Christ, yes please!

I saw Hamilton yesterday, and I was blown away (see what I did there?). I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda or much of the original cast, but the entire show was spectacular. The audience was alive with shared enjoyment. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths, awaiting every moment they knew was coming, almost disbelieving that they were really there. A special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I’d write up a blog because writing is what I do (albeit not with Hamiltonian prolificness).

The Subtext

As a writer and consumer of historical fiction in every medium, as soon as I decided that Hamilton was genius (for the record, that happened when I first heard King George informing his colonists that they’d be back), I started pondering why. Not why I was drawn to it, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a fan of musicals or hip-hop. That was pretty clear: it was about American history, and I do like music, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. No, what I was wondering was why it was so effective. What made it tick? What made it, as historical fiction, connect so profoundly with so many people?

A short answer was the language, which I mean to talk about later. But that wasn’t all of it, because the language and music are entirely anachronistic, with a few notable exceptions. Yet, in spite of the words being from the wrong era, they feel right. They seem to paint each historical person with an accurate light, according to what we know of their character. Why?

It took me a while to puzzle out the exact mechanism here, but I finally came up with this: subtext. Obviously, Jefferson didn’t run around chanting, “Never gonna be president now!”, but one imagines that that’s what he thought. And Washington almost certainly never said, “Can I be real a second, for just a milisecond?”, but one suspects that it was simmering in his mind. That’s the beauty of it: although the characters are singing to us aloud, what we’re hearing is the workings of their minds, the messages that were passed back and forth through body language, through shared history, through the subtle texture of diction and grammar that, at the remove of two hundred forty years, would elude most of us if it remained in its original form. Yet for the living, breathing people being represented, it was clear as day: there was much more going on than just spoken or written words.

That’s where music comes in. What’s being expressed is the subtle interplay that was never put into words. It functioned at a level below verbal language. So by bringing this to the surface, you can use whatever language can best express it to you audience, which is what music does best. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, this was the language of hip-hop and Broadway musicals.

Perhaps most telling as regards this particular theory: there are a few (mildly altered) direct quotations from the primary sources here. And if you pay attention, you notice that almost all these quotations are spoken, not sung. Think of the Reynolds Pamphlet, or Washington’s Farewell address, or when Washington says, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” These are spoken, or at most said in a singsong. We’re pulled out of the melody, setting these bits apart, which of course delineates what was said from what was thought (which in this case is sung).

Also, the most glaring “subtext” is the giddily bitchy King George, who struts in and reminds us that running through and above and below everything the Founding Fathers said and did was the real possibility of failure, and the reality that they were treading new ground.

The Text

Of course, Hamilton is genius for using the subtext to illuminate historical figures’ conflicts. But the actual use of language is genius as well. Miranda uses idiomatic English to perfection, brilliantly mixing touches of 18th century formality with the no-holds-barred language of a rap battle. It’s pretty extraordinary, to dip in and out of such disparate registers and dialects so freely and effectively.

As a historical novelist, I envy Miranda. Not only does he get to use music–which gives emotional cues and amplifies the meaning of the words–but he also is free to–or rather, freed himself to–use whatever words he wants, historical accuracy be damned. Because we’re being presented with subtext, and because frankly this is a musical, he can really let loose with all the linguistic skills at his fingertips (to great effect). The audience sees a stage and hears music and knows this is an interpretation.

Novel-writing is a different beast. You set down words on a page in a book, and people assume and expect it to be literally accurate. There’s no stage or music to draw attention to the fact that it is staged. There’s less leeway for novelists because, except for certain genres, your audience is expecting an accurate depiction of the world as it is–or was. Historical fiction in particular carries the expectation that the authors is presenting the real world, not a version of it. Take one look at the stage or cast for Hamilton, on the other hand, and you know that what we’re seeing is a version of the story.

So, yeah, I kind of wish I could get away with having an eighteenth-century character say “okay”, but then again . . . there are a million ways to say the same thing. A modern vernacular is effective, but it’s only one way to get that subtext across.

Pulls no punches.

One of the most striking things I noticed when watching the play last night was that the characters pull no punches. A disadvantage of having a great control of language is that you can lacerate other people with it. (I’m thinking of a story about Abraham Lincoln cutting down his political opponent so ruthlessly as a young man that he had to apologize for it later; not a naturally cruel man, he couldn’t really control his tongue at that point in his life.)

And here, Miranda is able to use language viciously. “Daddy’s calling.” “Call me son one more time!” “I’m not here for you.” These are cutting, cringe-inducing phrases. They work precisely because they’re so cutting. It feels like a lot of television and movies these days are afraid to use language as a tool, to really show how cruel people can be to one another with words. It takes a lot of wit to be that brutal, and a lot of wisdom to use it in the right places. One imagines that Miranda has to contain a lot of smart-ass remarks in real life.

The History

There’s a hell of a lot of historical fiction out there, and a lot of it’s about the Revolutionary War. But the Federal period has been given short shrift. I’ve thought for a long time that it was a fascinating time, particularly the period around the creation of the Constitution. What these men were doing, and what they accomplished, is truly remarkable. From where we stand, it seems inevitable and immutable, but for them it must have felt like they were bumbling through a thicket in the dark.

It’s refreshing to have a piece of popular historical fiction address such a fraught time period with such thoughtfulness and devotion to historical accuracy. No, not everything is accurate, but within the framework of a Broadway musical, that would be impossible. What is shown is faithful to the historical record, and especially to the spirit of the record. No major events were changed or greatly rearranged. What was changed had particular narrative purposes. It’s clear Miranda respected the history and wanted to do his best to represent it onstage.

The Historiography

The most interesting and important part of Hamilton, though, isn’t even the history it gets right; it’s the approach it takes to history, the historiography. Anyone who studies history knows that how we understand the past alters with the present. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. He’s undergone a lot of ups and downs in the eyes of the American public; currently, he seems to be on something of a downswing. It’s also important to recognize that there is a lot that we will simply never know, which Miranda clearly recognizes. Hell, there’s a whole song about how “no one else was in the room where it happened.” We’re reminded that, like Burr, we are on the outside looking in, that not even the people of the time necessarily knew all the details.

Then there’s the recurring theme of legacy: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Hamilton died relatively young, and his rivals ended up telling much of his story for him. Again, those familiar with history will know the importance of sources. Here on this blog, I’ve talked about Jeanne de La Motte’s memoirs. She’s not exactly a reliable source. She tended to make up stories from whole cloth. What’s interesting is that in her own time, she was listened to and believed, while the queen, who never directly addressed the suspicions that she stole the diamond necklace in question, was widely believed to be culpable. Yet, today, the reverse is believed.

What we leave to future generations will be interpreted and reinterpreted, and we have no control over any of it. That’s a caveat for consumers of history, as well as for those who believe they themselves are making history.

“Lafayette’s a smart man; he’ll be fine”; or Minor Miscues

While Miranda’s faithfulness to history is laudable, and his clear message about the nature of history itself is remarkably astute, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I would like to point out. There are others, but bear with me:

-Jefferson’s personality. Now, I enjoy the character of Jefferson, and I can see why he was written as he was. But, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a man of the people, and though he picked up some French habits while minister there, he didn’t dress flamboyantly, and he certainly wasn’t the type to strut around a cabinet meeting. He was a soft-spoken man who did not give public speeches and avoided conflict like the plague. He was unfailingly polite and charming. Rather a far cry from how he’s presented in the musical.

-Jefferson in France. This one really gets to me. In the musical, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for not fighting in the war because he was off in France. But Jefferson became minister to France after the war. During the war, it was John Adams and Ben Franklin who were in Paris. If you recall, Jefferson penned a little thing called the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so he was in the new United States during the thick of things. In fact, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner when Redcoats arrived and drove him and his family from Monticello in the middle of the night. He was governor of Virginia during the war. So while he didn’t command troops in the field like Hamilton did, he was very much a part of the war. He wasn’t off getting high with the French (and if he were, so what? someone had to wine and dine them to keep their support).

-“Lafayette’s a smart man, he’ll be fine.” Sigh. No, not really, unless you count being imprisoned for many years to be “fine.” Lafayette was caught up in the madness of the France’s own Revolution after he returned home from the American one, and though he tried to roll with the ever-changing tide, it eventually caught up to him. He was frankly lucky to survive.

Those are the ones that really bug me. There are smaller ones (like the fact that Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children), but often there are clear narrative reasons for them (what on earth would one do with all those children?).

Everything else about Hamilton is basically pure magic. The show was amazing, and if I had another pile of cash to throw down, you bet I’d go see it again. If you are the oddball who hasn’t listened to Hamilton yet, please do so. Now.

Mercy Street-Episode 6

So, I’m finally getting around to putting down some thoughts about the final episode of season 1 of Mercy Street, the PBS drama about a Civil War hospital in Alexandria (I already recapped episode 1, episodes 2-3, and episodes 4-5).

We left off with the hospital preparing itself for a visit from the president and First Lady. The Knights of the Golden Circle are preparing for the visit, too, but they don’t want to welcome the Lincolns. They want to blow them and the entire hospital to Kingdom Come.

We start with a bit of drama about Doctor Foster being promoted. Doctor Hale and Nurse Hastings have been conniving all along to get rid of that terrible, no good, very bad, clearly-more-talented-and-therefore-unbearable Doctor Foster. I found it all a bit unnecessary. Also unnecessary was the scene a bit later where Nurse Hastings gets so drunk that she’s literally falling all over herself. It seemed pretty far from the conniving, fake-it-’til-you-make-it-even-if-you-are-less-skilled attitude she’s shown previously. Continue reading

Fateful Lightning–The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Most people know the tune from The Battle Hymn of the Republic, even if they only know the words of the chorus (“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on”) or the first line of the first verse (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”). Even those who know the song might not realize that it’s a Civil War-era song with heavy meaning in relation to the war and American history in general.

The version of the song most remembered today, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was not the first version by any means. During the Civil War, the earlier song “John Brown’s body” was probably better-known and more popular. It turns out that in 1861, in a Massachusetts battalion (the 2nd Infantry Battalion), there was a man named John Brown. Now, of course, the famous John Brown–the one who dragged five proslavery men from their homes in Kansas and hacked them to death with the help of his many sons, and the one who had tried and failed to take over Harper’s Ferry and start a massive slave uprising across the South–had been executed in 1859. Then, as now, soldiers liked to rib one another. The men in John Brown’s battalion started saying things like, “You can’t be John Brown; John Brown’s dead and in the grave!” Before long, they were putting their jokes to the tune of a camp-meeting song called, “Oh Brother!”. The “Glory, hallelujah!” chorus was retained, but the verses were changed to, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul is marching on.” The soldier John Brown was of course the “soul” that was literally “marching” on.


The song caught on quickly. The silly genius of the refrain is that, when the battalion marched along belting out the song about John Brown, everyone assumed it was the John Brown they were singing about. Many Northerners approved of old John Brown’s mission and even his methods, and they took to the song.

This happened early in the war, and it was still early in the war when Julia Ward Howe, a young woman with strong religious beliefs, was in Washington City with her husband and a preacher friend ans saw the troops being reviewed on Upton Hill. Howe watched the spectacle and heard “John Brown’s Body” being sung by the soldiers. Her friend the Reverend suggested that she should put some more pious (read “more tasteful”) lyrics to the song.

That night, November 14, 1861, Julia Ward Howe woke up in the middle of the night in her room at Willard’s Hotel (it’s still there–quite a historical location) and, apparently in a fit of inspiration, wrote out a poem of five stanzas to go to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

And what words she wrote! The more you examine the words, the more apocalyptic they seem. We start off with a bang, with the “coming of the Lord”, which is of course a reference to the Second Coming, also known as, well, the Apocalypse. Then we have the grapes of wrath–God is angry–and His “righteous sentence”. A trumpet sounds; the serpent is crushed under the heel; hearts are “sifted” at the “judgment seat”. Very pointedly, Howe writes that, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”

I know that in some performances, this line is changed to “let us live to make men free”. But I really don’t like that. First of all, those aren’t the words the Julia Ward Howe wrote. She did not write them because (secondly) she was not being figurative; she was writing about a real war and real men who were really dying. When she writes about the camps and watch fires, they are literal. What she was seeing was an earthly manifestation of God’s will. To change the word “die” to “live” absolutely derogates the deaths of the many men and women who died for this nation and for freedom, as far as I’m concerned. And what exactly does it mean to “live to make men free”, anyway? It’s pretty weak. Saying nice things is never going to be enough. Action and sometimes death are necessary to preserve freedom.

Backing up a step, we might ask, why the (melo)dramatic, apocalyptic tone? When you think about the times Howe was living in, it becomes clearer. When she wrote the words, the war had only just begun, yet it was already taking on dimensions that were breathtakingly different from any war that had come before. The Battle of Shiloh, just a few months after Howe wrote the words of the Battle Hymn, had more casualties than all previous American wars combined, in one battle. Shiloh was just the beginning. The slaughter went on for four years. The pace of war was different from previous wars, with rifled guns and powerful artillery and trains and the telegraph; and there were unimaginable numbers of casualties to go along with the new technologies. This must have been very unsettling for the people of the time. It might well have seemed like the End really was nigh.

The lyrics aren’t actually about the Apocalypse, though. That language is rhetorical (and would have been very familiar to a culture that was drenched in the Bible). The point was to elevate the cause–the soldiers were fighting God’s war. It was a fight for freedom, and in this case, Howe certainly meant freedom for slaves (she was an abolitionist). So early in the war, not many others would have shared Howe’s vision of the war, so it’s a bit astonishing just how thunderous her views are. For her–as Lincoln later echoed in his Second Inaugural–the war was ordained by God, though she saw it less as just recompense for wrongs and more as a smiting of the sinful Confederates by the divinely-backed Federals. Same basic idea, though: this was beyond just a struggle over territory between two sections. This was a struggle between good and evil. Hence, in Howe’s mind, the apocalyptic tone was entirely apt.

Since the Civil War, the tune has remained very popular, sometimes being spruced up with new lyrics for new causes (such as “Solidarity Forever” to support workers’ rights). It’s also been played at patriotic events of all kinds, notably after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was even played at Winston’s Churchill’s funeral.

It also happens to by mt favorite patriotic song:

For more about The Battle Hymn of the Republic, I suggest The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (Oxford University Press; 2013)  by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis. The Wikipedia page also has some great “further reading” ideas.

Cotton Prices–A Research Coup

Sometimes, small details trip you up, especially when you’re writing historical fiction. You might find that the story demands a certain esoteric fact. You know all about this, that, and the other thing, but what you really need to know is the color of a particular bottle or the name of a very specific medicine: something super detailed but super important to the story.

You can either go hunting for the detail, or you can write around it.

As I wrote what I affectionately call The Prequel (even though its working title is The Cotton Wars and has been for a while now), I had a blast writing about the feud between the Daniels brothers. At one point, the price of cotton (by the bale, to be sold to factories) becomes important. Suffice it to say that Charles has a particular reason for wanting to sell his cotton harvest at a particular price, so he discusses it with his overseer-and-factor. He asks what the usual price is, then what the highest and lowest prices might be. But I didn’t have the least idea what the price of a cotton bale might have been in 1830. I could have cut out this discussion, or written around the numbers, but the scene was important and wouldn’t have the same impact without the numbers. So, as a place-holder, I plugged in my best guess–around a hundred dollars per bale–and told myself I would fact-check later.

Many moons later, I still had those numbers bolded as a reminder to myself to check them. I kept putting it off because I thought it would be a hard nut to crack. But this past weekend, I was reading a guide to Philadelphia (as some additional research for The Prequel) and found mention of the cost of storing cotton. This got my interest piqued, like a bloodhound on a scent. So I began to poke around Google Books, searching for “cotton” and “Savannah” (which is the port to which my characters, living on the Sea Islands, would have sent their cotton to be sold and shipped to factories in the North or in England).

And lo! I found what I was looking for: cotton prices! I was ecstatic.

What I found was in Niles’ Weekly Register, a newspaper that contained all sorts of shipping news from around the country and the world. There are fascinating details about ships being burned and confiscated, of prices of corn (and other commodities) rising and falling, and shipments of hats etc. coming into port.

The first bit of information I found was about a ship confiscated in 1814, 20151201_204510during the War of 1812. It was a very helpful start: The ship Victory was captured, including 464 bales of cotton at 300 pounds each, worth some
$41,760 (according to the article). Doing the math, that meant $90 per bale and $.30 per pound. This, however, was some fifteen years before my story, so I kept looking.

From April 1826, I found two helpful bits: At Charleston, upland cotton 20151201_204536bound for Liverpool would “not bear more than eleven cents per lb.” Keeping in mind that the cotton in my story would be the finest Sea Island cotton, the above means about $33 per bale. The second bit of information was that in New Orleans, the price was “from 8 cents ordinary, to 14 ‘fine'”, meaning that even the best cotton was selling for perhaps $42 per bale.

I had to ask myself, how could cotton be worth twice as much in 1814 as in 1826? I think this might have to do with the note in the 1814 article: the price they give is for cotton “clear of duties”. Meaning, this is before taxation. The two numbers20151201_204547 I got from 1826 might be after duties. The writer of Niles’ Review reckoned
that the duty on the entire cargo of the ship (including indigo, coffee, and wood) would be about $18,000, so no small sum.  I *believe* that is the solution here, though I’m still slightly uncertain. I’m guessing that it could partly be explained by natural fluctuations in prices. There is also the fact that the prices cited in 1826 were clearly not the good Sea Island stuff.

Another issue is the size of a bale of cotton. You’ll notice that I based my calculations on a bale of 300 pounds. Today, a standard bale is 500 pounds, but (no surprise) things weren’t as standard in the early 1800’s. The usual bale, apparently, was closer to 300 or 400 pounds, as evidenced by the statement above in Niles’ Review whereby the bales of cotton are reckoned at 300 pounds.

So, I had what I needed to put (accurate) words (or numbers) into my characters’ mouths. A bale of good cotton would be somewhere around $75 a bale, going with the number that’s closer to my date. For the best stuff, let’s say $100, for the rotten stuff, $50. These are rough numbers, based partly on the numbers above and partly on the fact that Sea Island cotton was better quality and worth much more than other cotton.

I wasn’t far off in my original guesses, especially given the slightly high number I found from 1814: I put the price of a bale of cotton at around $100 per bale.

So, that my friends, is a “day in the life” of a historical fiction writer…

Lincoln at Getysburg

One hundred and fifty two years ago today, Abraham Lincoln stood on a podium at a newly created national cemetery for those killed in the battle that had taken place four months earlier, in July. It was the largest battle to have ever taken place on American

Lincoln at Gettybsurg (he is slightly left and above center, with his head bare and slightly bowed). [Library of Congress]

Lincoln at Gettybsurg (he is slightly left and above center, with his head bare and slightly bowed). [Library of Congress]

soil, fought over three days and ending with over 50,000 casualties. His “few appropriate remarks” became some of the best-known words in the English language.

Then, the question was what these men had died for. Union? The Constitution? Freedom (and if so, whose)? One-hundred-fifty-two years later, people are still asking those questions and debating the root causes and the consequences of this momentous war.

When the Civil War began, most Northerners would have probably told you they were fighting for the Union. By the end of the war, most–though hardly all–might have said they were fighting for freedom. I bet that all the black soldiers would have said they fought for freedom–freedom for [all] the slaves. I’m sure all the black women wanted the same thing, though they couldn’t fight for it.

The Civil War was a reckoning for the sin of slavery, and a long-overdue one. It was the crisis point following several decades of unrest. And yet, it wasn’t necessarily evident to the people in the moment that this was a massive turning point. Sure, wars are always major events, but as Lincoln later said, both sides expected the war to have “a result less fundamental and astounding” than what it did. He was not the first to see that the war would become not just a war for union but for freedom, but he did see it by November of 1863. Though the Gettysburg is couched in heroic, transcendental terms, it isn’t too difficult to surmise what is meant by “the great cause”. Those who wanted to could comfortably interpret the cause as union, but this requires a kind of willful misreading (though it isn’t a reading that the politician Lincoln probably would have discouraged).

The clearest indication of this is the invocation of the Declaration of Independence. You know, the line about all men being created equal. For four-score-and-seven years, that promise had been hanging there, ringing with great possibility that was left unfulfilled (what Marin Luther King called a “blank check”). Lincoln was, again, not the first to see the almost limitless potential in that simple phrase, but he crystalized it into a pithy, moving, two-minutes speech:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.


But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It’s been said that we see the Declaration of Independence now the way that Abraham Lincoln wanted us to see it. He re-interpreted the meaning of the Declaration, challenging America to take it at face value–all men are created equal. In the decades before the war, it wasn’t read that way at all. It was read as meaning “white men”, or at least “most white men”. And besides, the Constitution was seen as the founding document. The Gettysburg Address recast the founding itself and articulated a new-old purpose for the United States: equality. We see the founding now through the prism of the Gettysburg Address. And all of that in 272 words.

Of Lost Causes and Confederate Flags

There’s been a hell of a lot of talk lately about the Confederate flag–that is, the Confederate battle flag, which actually wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy. [Some later versions of the Confederate national flag incorporated the Army of Northern Virginia’s square battle flag, the one we’re all familiar with. A different flag is referred to in the song The Bonnie Blue Flag.]

Just today, the governor of South Caroline signed a bill to take down the Confederate flag from their state house. Other states have removed it from their state buildings and license plates. An article from the Washington Post has an overview of what’s been happening:

Once Politically Sacrosanct Confederate Flag Moves Toward an End

The reason for this is pretty clear: the murder last month of nine people at a black church by a young white supremacist. The rationale is clear, too: the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of hate for some and pain for those who have been victims of that hate.

And that makes all the sense in the world. In fact, I believe that state buildings have no business flying the Confederate battle flag. The Confederacy is dead. Slavery is dead. Segregation is dead.

I do fear, though, that what’s been lost in the litany of places from where the flag has now been removed–the Gettysburg gift shop, for one!–is discussion of the issues at stake. I have heard a lot of calls for removal of the flag, and almost no one talking about why, and more importantly about the bigger issues of race in America and how we got to this point.

The most insidious truth of the Civil War is that while the Union won the war, the Confederacy, in many ways, won the peace. For a hundred years, African Americans didn’t have the same rights as whites in this country: in many places, they couldn’t eat at some restaurants or use certain bathrooms. Things have changed for the better. Yet even today, even among educated people, and in sometimes very subtle ways, the Confederate version of events, the so-called “Lost Cause” version, remains with us.

Let me give two recent examples. I was at Appomattox, watching a reenactment of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S.Grant. Confederate reenactors stacked their arms in the same spot where, exactly 150 years earlier, Lee’s troops had stacked their arms, which had been put to use against the Federal government for the prior four years. And as I stood there, a very chatty boy of about nine or ten years, said, “I always forget who won. Who was it again? Oh yeah, that’s right. It was a tie, wasn’t it?” Maybe he was simply mistaken. He was young, after all. But he seemed to me old enough to know who had won the Civil War. And we were, after all, watching at that very moment a representation of the Confederates losing to the Yankees. Something about the way the boy said it, too, made me think that someone–his parents?–had told him the war had been a “tie.” Now, I didn’t think it was my place to grab the boy, look him in the eye, and set him straight. Apparently, neither did his parents, who weren’t standing far off.

The incident reminded me that for some people in this country, as Faulkner said, “not once but whenever he [or she] wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” The reference is to Pickett’s Charge, the “turning point” of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was a turning point in the war. This means, that for some, the war isn’t really over yet because they still carry a very old resentment against what they see as a different way of life. It also reminded me of the importance of history education.

Another incident, less striking but indicative nonetheless, was a discussion I had with someone I know. I respect him greatly and think of him as knowledgeable about history. I was discussing my trip to Savannah and mentioned the great fire that destroyed a lot of the city in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He said, “And there was also that other thing.” I was puzzled for a moment until I realized he meant the Civil War, especially Sherman’s March to the Sea. I was almost certain that Sherman had spared Savannah, and that the Southern version of the events made Sherman a Yankee devil of destruction all out of proportions with reality. I didn’t want to say something wrong at that moment, so I went back and double-checked to be sure I wasn’t imagining things, but yes, Sherman spared Savannah. There are several version of why, but basically it was because Savannah capitulated.

So, here was a very intelligent, educated person whose perception of the past had been colored, without his really knowing it, by the mythology of the Lost Cause. There is a Southern vision of Georgia in flames–not all that far from the truth–and the Gone With the Wind image of Atlanta burning to the ground (in reality, largely the Confederates’ own doing). So he assumed that Savannah was put to the torch. But it wasn’t.

The most noxious lies are that the war wasn’t about slavery at all, and that the South didn’t lose because of moral and structural failures but because of the North’s superior manpower and materiel. That, by the way, was Robert E. Lee’s assessment of why the South lost, in his farewell address to his men. I strongly disagree with both points.

First, and let me be utterly frank, the war was about slavery, top to bottom, beginning to end. It was only after the war that survivors and apologists began to insist that it was “states’ rights” that caused the war. Of course, that’s nonsense. First of all, all you need to do is look at any documents of the time that explain the reasoning for secession. For example, there’s the Texas declaration of secession which flatly declares that their new nation is founded on the basic truth that blacks are an inferior race that must be enslaved. Or read the Cornerstone Speech of Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

How much clearer does it have to be?

What about states’ rights? That, actually, was an explanation that gained traction after the war rather than before or during the war. It came from people–Southerners–looking back retroactively. Slavery was dead by then, and Southerners wanted to pretend that the discredited “peculiar institution” hadn’t really been the root of the problem. They judged their Northern audience and decided that a states’ rights argument would advance their desire to be readmitted fully to the Union and to regain all their political rights. Of course, the idea of “states’ rights” begs the question (posed by a character in a novella I wrote): The right to do what? After the war, the question is: the political right to do what? The answer to the first is obvious: Southerners wanted states’ rights so they could perpetuate and maybe spread slavery. After the war, they wanted to return to political power so they could put the freed blacks into the same servile role as before the war but without the title of “slave”. As Lincoln might have said, it was the right of the wolf to eat the lamb. (Said Lincoln: “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.”)

The second point is equally disconcerting. Lee and others have argued that the South didn’t lose because their cause was unjust or because they lacked bravery, but because of an accident of geography that made the North more prosperous and populous. As if it weren’t the inherently stultifying effect of slavery that caused the South to be far less developed than the North. As if it were accidental that the North was able to supply its troops while the South starved. As if the North threw its men into a meat grinder for which any lump of flesh was as good as the next, while one Southern soldier was worth ten Northern soldiers. As if maybe God were sleeping when he failed to give them the victory they deserved.

Of course, it’s frustrating that these ideas are still hanging around. It’s terrifying that racism still lives and that the Confederate battle flag is used as a symbol of hatred. This should spur a lot of discussion about why racism persists. There should be more discussion about the myths and culture that led that flag to become a symbol of hate. The flag itself is just a flag. In the zeal to tear it down, it’s important to remember that removing the symbol doesn’t remove the thing it stands for.

For good measure, here’s a link including a video of Ken Burns (the filmmaker responsible for the wonderful The Civil War miniseries that first aired on PBS int he early 90s).

The Sea Islands of Georgia, March 2015

At the end of March (yes, it’s taken me a month to get around to blogging about it), I visited Savannah, Georgia. When family or friends asked, I said I had always kind of wanted to go to Savannah (it’s supposed to be so pretty!) and I had a travel voucher (because American Airlines screwed up a connection for me last May). I said that because I don’t talk much about my writing (at least not in person, even with family and friends). The most fundamental reason I wanted to go? I wrote a novel set on the Sea Islands of Georgia. The timing couldn’t have been better (but that is a story for another time). The novel was completed years ago (it’s undergone several revisions since then), and I’d always wanted to visit the place that inspired my trip, but I kept putting it off. I finally got my ass into gear. I booked my plane ticket and hotel room, bought a guide book, and plotted out the high points of a relatively brief trip.

My copy of Residence on a Georgian Plantataion

My copy of Residence on a Georgian Plantataion

First, I should back up a bit and mention how I came to be interested in the Georgia Sea Islands. I’ve always been interested in the Civil War. (I can’t imagine that anyone with a love of American History is NOT interested in the Civil War.) When I was in elementary and middle school, I started Dear America-style stories about the Civil War. I never got far. I started writing about different periods and for a while was pretty sure I wouldn’t ever seriously consider writing about the Civil War. But a lot of influences from my youth converged to make it inevitable, and when I ran across Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (actually a series of “letters sent to a friend”; here is a nice write-up from PBS, here is a link to it on Amazon, and here it is on Project Gutenberg), the cogs in my head started turning.

Fanny Kemble was an English actress born in 1809. Her family was a well-known acting family. At that time, acting was not a very well-regarded profession. Many people saw theatergoing as sinful and actors and (especially) actresses as especially immoral. Women who acted were little more than whores—or were simply whores, in the eyes of many. By the time Fanny took the stage, however, as a young lady trying to help keep her family afloat, these attitudes towards the theater were loosening. Fanny and her family were respected and were for the most part Shakespearean. Acting and the running of theaters was a notoriously precarious business venture. Fanny’s family had run into financial trouble, but Fanny became a sensation almost as soon as she took the stage. She and her father came to America to tour, and it was there (in Philadelphia) that Fanny met Pierce Butler, part owner of several rice plantations on the Georgia Coast.

Although it seems odd to us today, it appears that Fanny wasn’t aware of where her husband’s wealth came from before she married him. In part, this may be because the family were absentee and spent most their time in Pennsylvania and were even active in Pennsylvania politics. Partly, this is because it was considered very impolite to speak about money.

In any case, after years of cajoling, Pierce Butler finally allowed Fanny to come to Georgia with their two children, and thence Journal of a Residence. It is a beautifully written, compelling look at slavery. Fanny’s views and opinions are sometimes startlingly modern (most people wouldn’t expect a Victorian to be so forthright in her support of gender and racial equality).The way she describes Georgia also captivated me. It was clear she wished she could separate the beauty of Georgia from the darkness of slavery. But since she couldn’t, she returned to Philadelphia after several months in Georgia. She divorced Pierce Butler in 1849; the slaves were almost all sold off at auction in 1859 due to Pierce’s fiscal mismanagement; and during the Civil War, the Sea Islands of Georgia fell early to Union occupation. (For the better, let me be clear; the slaves were all freed.)

I won’t burden the readers with a description of my own fictional characters. Suffice it to say that Fanny was the starting point for them, and it was their fictional story (as well as Fanny Kemble’s real-life story) that inspired me to make the journey from DC to Georgia.

I wasn’t just there to see Butler Island, the scene of most of Fanny’s diary. I was also there to experience the city of Savannah. My plan was to spend one day south at Butler Island and the nearby Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, then spend the other two full days exploring Savannah.

It was the end of March, but even the end of March is usually very temperate in Savannah. However, it was an especially cold snap; back home, temperatures barely rose about freezing. In Savannah, it was sunny and about sixty degrees. Not balmy, but definitely doable.

My first full day was almost surreally bright and clear. The sky was a fantastical kind of blue, and everything seemed so green when I stepped off the plane. It had been a long, cold winter in DC, and we hadn’t emerged from it yet. There in Savannah, spring was bursting at the seams. I got up early the morning after I arrived, hopped in my rental car, and drove south . . . along I-95. Yeah, it’s hard to escape I-95 on the East Coast. And it’s not exactly a romantic way to get around, but it is efficient. And it was such a beautiful day, and the drive was so lovely, that I didn’t even mind I was on an uninspiring 20th century highway.

It took about an hour to get to Butler Island. To get to the island, you get off I-95 the exit north of it, head slightly east and then turn south at the town of Darien, which was the closest town to the Butler plantation and which is mentioned multiple times in Fanny Kemble’s memoirs. Today, it’s a quiet little clutch of houses. Later, I would get turned around and find myself driving down enchanting neighborhood roads, only two lanes, no lines, a median of grass and flowering trees down the middle, small houses with bursting plant life all around. It had that pleasant, honeyed Southern charm you hear about—and that you can’t appreciate unless you see it.

20150329_102010Beyond Darien, over two bridges, there is a red chimney sticking up out the exquisitely green grass right by the side of the road. This is what I came to see: this is what’s left of the plantation that Fanny Kemble knew. The chimney is what remains of the steam-powered rice mill at Butler Plantation. There is also the stump-like ruin of the tide-operated mill. Time was, this was a thriving plantation sending flatboats laden with rice down the river to Savannah and further afield. But like everything

Tide-powered mill.

Tide-powered mill.

associated with slavery, it evaporated after the war. Today, it’s just these remnants. The pretty white house standing behind the chimney is twentieth-century; the house that Fanny stayed in is gone.

It made a striking image: the green, green grass, the brilliant sky, the red bricks , the white house.

By the road and the chimney is a historical marker telling visitors about Fanny’s daughter Frances, who came back to Butler Plantation after the war and tried to resurrect it, and about Owen Wister, who was Fanny’s grandson by her other daughter, Sarah. Oddly enough, Fanny herself isn’t mentioned, perhaps a pointed omission (who says the Civil War ended 150 years ago?).

20150329_101932 IMG_1609

After taking entirely too many pictures (and many selfies), I started walking around. The remains of Butler Plantation are part of a wildlife refuge, so it has very much gone back to nature. I quite merrily walked along the paths, among hedges of jasmine just like the jasmine Fanny described in her memoirs. Ducks floated on the pond. Bees buzzed. There was no one there but me. I felt very much a part of this place. I couldn’t help thinking of the alligators and snakes that Fanny mentioned, and I kept an eye out for where I was stepping . . .

20150329_104620 20150329_105053

I ate some lunch at a little boat launch near the house, then got back in the car to drive down a dirt road (Champney Road) just to the south of the plantation ruins. The road turns and wanders. A family was fishing in a pond, but otherwise, there was no one near. The road kept going west until it reached I-95. Yeah. I-95 actually cuts right across Butler Island. Considering that, it’s fairly unobtrusive. It glides by overhead, cars and trucks zipping by at 70 miles an hour. The pylons sink into the sandy earth. Otherwise, it doesn’t affect the island—no Mickey D’s, no off-ramps, no guardrails.


You can drive beneath I-95, but on the other side, the sign quite expressly says, “No vehicular traffic.” So I parked and jumped out and stated walking. I didn’t get too far, honestly. It’s a big island, and there’s nothing there except for the remains of dikes and canals. I stood at the beginning of one of these 170-year-old ditches and stared down the length of its regular course, where it disappeared into the vegetation. That’s all there is here, now: straight lines of water, and untended vegetation. I stood there, looking, taking it all in. Just imagine. Before it was a rice plantation, it was a cotton plantation.

20150329_104815 20150329_103135

I wanted to stay, to explore it for days on end. I wanted to know so much more. But my time was limited, and there was more to do and see.

My next stop was south of Butler Island, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. Unlike Butler Plantation, which succumbed to the ravages of time, Hofwyl-Broadfield was lovingly preserved by the family who lived there. It was a rice plantation, then a dairy, and then a family home until the last woman to own it died at an old age and left it intact to the state of Georgia. Everything in it came with it: furniture that dated back to the Antebellum period, IMG_1652farm equipment from every time period, various outbuildings. It is now an exceptional place to visit and learn. The visitors center has a great video about how rice plantations operated and has a wonderful selection of books (I would have bought four or five but had to think about how much space they would take up in my suitcase!). There is a loop for a nature walk, which takes you past the ruins of the tabby-built rice mill and to an overlook of the salt marsh. (It’s incredible how high those grasses are! They’re at least ten feet high, though you wouldn’t expect that from a distance.) I had way too much fun setting up my camera with a timer and taking pictures of myself in the clearing with the ruins of the rice mill. The house tour was informative and immersive—like I said, pretty much all the family possessions from every period remained there in the house. It was a quirky little place, not at all reminiscent of the romantic visions some people have of plantation houses. It was comfortable but not large or grand. Beyond the house, there was a bevy of outbuildings, from the barn to the garage to slave quarters.

But perhaps the very best part of the place—for me!—was the trees. That sounds a little weird. Let me explain. I’m not what you call a huge tree person. My dad can instantly name most any tree you can point to. I can’t. I can tell a beech from a maple from an oak, but that’s about it. I do, however, know what a live oak is. Or at least, I had some conception of it, but until I really saw one of these ancient, magnificent beauties there at Hofwyl-Broadfield, I didn’t really understand. The trees there are said to be as old as eight hundred years. They’re massive, dwarfing the house. And what’s more, they aren’t just large and old; they’re also twisted and moss-covered, with their broad boughs like little ecosystems of their own. They’re almost magical. I was so enamored of the way one them leaned to the side, twisted around itself, and then leaned back the way it came, that I took about thirty pictures. It was absolutely beautiful.

Once I’d done the nature walk, toured the house, seen the museum, and gotten a few goodies at the gift shop, it was back in the car to head back for Savannah . . .

And since it occurs to me that I’ve expended a lot of words on one day of travel, I’m going to save the remainder of my trip for another post.

A Post-election Reflection

Tuesday night was election night here int he United States–not for president, but for various state offices and congressional seats (governors, Senators, and Representatives were elected, as well as representatives to the state legislatures). I voted, quite proudly. Since it was a mid-term election, the turn-out was poor, which is a shame. Just because the president isn’t being elected doesn’t mean that the election is unimportant. Both houses of Congress are now controlled by the Republican party, for instance, as a result of this mid-term election. There will be all kinds of consequences to that.

But, quite honestly, I’m not especially exercised by the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong: I voted, and it’s incredibly important for everyone to get involved, learn at least a little about the issues, and vote. It’s important for people not to get too jaded and think it doesn’t matter. Put into a broader perspective, though, while this election is interesting and noteworthy, it isn’t exactly world-shattering.

Politicians are quite fond of painting the current time as one of strife, discord, and great import. We as human beings tend have tunnel-vision and quite naturally think of our own times in superlative terms: this is the most divisive time in history, this election has been the nastiest on record, Americans are more deeply divided than ever. It’s a chicken-egg question whether politicians use this kind of rhetoric because it’s human nature to think that way or whether we think that way partly because the politicians are telling us that’s the way to think.

I am especially irritated by the claim that these are the most divisive times in American history. Have the people who say these things ever heard of the Civil War? This nation was so divided that it was literally divided in two. Six hundred fifty thousand men died as a result. Even before then, though, the nation was perpetually divided. It wasn’t just north-south. The early nation was divided between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, and the kind of vitriol spewed at that time makes the polite, sedate rhetoric of today look like a child’s tea party. A few decades later, North and South were beginning the slide to war. Henry Foote pulled a gun on fellow Senator Thomas Hart Benton. A few years later, Senator Charles Sumner was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor. A few years after that, states began to leave the Union one by one.

So forgive me if I don’t find today’s spats to be believably extreme. That’s not to say there’s nothing at stake here, or that we shouldn’t care. It’s just that we should keep a perspective on things.

I try not to be cynical, though my thoughts sometimes come out that way. Whether this will go down as a memorable election or not, what’s important is America–the idea of America. What we’re seeing today is nothing new, and we’ve weathered worse as a nation.

Living as I do in Washington D.C., having been born as I was an American citizen, I often forget just what it means to be American and what wonderful things that entails. This American experiment is still a work in progress. When it stops being such, it will have stopped being. As my favorite historical personage ever (ever!) said presciently in 1838, as a nation of freemen (and women) we will live through all time or die by suicide. As long as we don’t take it for granted, we’ll avoid the suicide part.

When I start feeling a little jaundiced about things, I like to think of good old Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) coming to Washington DC. It’s healthy to reflect and to shake the scales from your eyes, so to speak. Like “Jeff”, I find one of the best places to remember these things is the Lincoln Memorial:

And so I leave you on that optimistic note.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

[SIDEBAR: This is a little bit of American history, but there is some relation to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France beginning in 1784, exactly during the time of the Affair. He approved of the French Revolution, even after it turned bloody. He said that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing”.]


The west front of Monticello.

Monticello (a national landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the home that Thomas Jefferson built for himself outside Charlottesville, Virginia. It sits atop a small mountain (“Monticello” means “little mountain”, of course). It’s a remarkable place because of its history, its idiosyncrasies, the man who built it, and for its beauty. The reason Jefferson chose the site was its spectacular views of the mountains for miles around. It remains an alluring place today for many of the same reasons Jefferson chose–and largely because of the history encapsulated here.

The house is a perfect reflection of the man who built it: progressive, idiosyncratic, a font of knowledge, contradictory, and a little baffling.

In many of its little conveniences–curiosities, really–the house was ahead of its time. There were dumbwaiters for wine, skylights in many rooms, and the first dome ever built on a house in the United States. Of course, being ahead of your time comes with risks. The skylights leaked and the room beneath the dome was never used for much. Luckily, the dumbwaiter seems to have worked as planned. Jefferson the man was equally ahead of his time in his ideas, ideas that he apparently had trouble putting successfully into practice. He had faith in democracy and equality, yet he owned slaves. It’s one thing to say “all men are created equal” and much another to act upon those words when one’s own livelihood is at stake.


Jefferson’s little foibles show in his design of the house: he didn’t like stairs, so there is no sweeping stairway in the entrance hall. In fact, the stairs are tucked away in the center of the house and are frighteningly narrow and steep. Likewise, Jefferson apparently caught on to the fad for alcove beds while living in France. His own bed is an alcove bed that opens on one side to his “bedroom” and on the other to his “cabinet”. At the foot of his bed was a clock. When it was light enough for him to see the hands on its face, Jefferson woke. This was all good and well for Jefferson, but really alcove bedding is a bad choice in the sticky summers of Virginia. His poor family and guests could only endure. Likewise, they simply had to endure the narrow stairs leading upstairs (Jefferson lived on the ground floor–the narrow stairways never bothered him). The fact

The gardens and the view.

The gardens and the view.

that the house was almost perpetually under construction during Jefferson’s lifetime is indicative of his continuous drive to bring the world around him into line with his own vision–a vision that he doesn’t seem to have ever quite achieved either in his house or in the nation beyond (the United States isn’t, after all, the agrarian republic he envisioned, and it would take nearly 150 following his death for real equality to be achieved).

Because it was built particularly to serve Jefferson’s oddities, Monticello is absolutely unlike any other house of the time and tells us a lot about the man himself. These oddities may not make sense to us, but the house wasn’t built for us. It’s easy to be baffled by the choices Jefferson made. I, for one, just shook my head and chalked it up to Jefferson’s eccentricities, which I admit are pretty endearing to me.

After returning from Monticello, I started thinking of all the historic houses I’ve visited. In particular, I thought of Mount Vernon. They’re from the same time period, but it’s obvious how they’re owners shaped them. Monticello is brilliant but scattered and a bit haphazard. Mount Vernon is elegantly simple, unassuming and sensible.

A Working Laboratory


Grape vines in the vineyard.

John F. Kennedy once said to a group of Nobel prize winners that they were the greatest collection of brainpower the White House had ever seen–except, perhaps, for when Jefferson dined alone. Jefferson never tired of learning and experimenting. He was an avid amateur scientist, botanist, tinkerer, and thinker. His “cabinet” (a small room) is filled with his scientific instruments (a telescope and “polygraph”, for instance). He kept a large garden in which he experimented with many native and non-native varieties of vegetables, fruits, and trees. He wrote copious notes on everything he did, from which we can reconstruct both the weather and the particulars of 18th century horticulture. Jefferson, for example, was an early adopter of tomatoes, which previously were thought to be poisonous. Part of the pleasure of gardening for him was, no doubt, the discovery of what grew well, when, and in what conditions. The “book room” once held thousands of volumes, most of which were sold to the US government to become the nucleus of the Library of Congress. In his greenhouse, there was apparently a workbench where he would work on small projects. He never grew tired of discovering more about the world around him.

Obvious Contradictions

Of course, the major contradiction in Jefferson’s life as well as at Monticello is slavery. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Jefferson declared that all men are created equal and yet owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life. The cognitive dissonance required for him to live his life this way must have been immense. There are other contradictions, though: in spite of the fact that Jefferson was building his dream home, it was never done, and in spite of the fact that he built the place in part to make a display of his stature in society, he was chronically  in debt. In fact, most of his belongings and, sadly, many of the enslaved people on the plantation were sold off to satisfy his debts when he died. And, while he was constantly working on the place, he never quite reached an endpoint.

A quote of Jefferson's referring to slavery. It hangs on my "plot wall".

A quote of Jefferson’s referring to slavery. It hangs on my “plot wall”.

Some people find Jefferson’s obvious contradictions confusing and off-putting. I think it’s a symptom of a restless mind that reached beyond the moral failing of a fallible human; basically, he could envision a more perfect version of himself, his home, and his nation but didn’t have the moral strength himself to really see it through. If he had, he might have made a stand against slavery. And if he had done that, it may have set an important example for all slave-holders. His stand might have sounded the death knell for the institution of slavery and saved this nation a terrible, bloody civil war. However, as he said, slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears: you don’t like it, but you can’t safely let go. And yet, Jefferson knew that slavery was an invasive cancer. He knew the Union was in danger from fracturing. “Like a fire bell in the night,” he said, the fear of disunion “awakened and filled [him] with terror”.

It’s interesting that he knew what was coming and yet still couldn’t bring himself to act. It’s more than a little the actions of an addict. This attitude was endemic to slaveholders in the South and only became worse. The cognitive dissonance deepened and the need to justify the unjustifiable grew more desperate. The rhetoric became commensurately more shrill as the perceived threat to the Institution became greater. It became so bad that Southerners–unlike Jefferson–began to profess that slavery was a positive good for slaves and slave holders alike. The contradictions are obvious only to us from the space of two hundred years. I think Jefferson understood his own limitations; others who followed him did not understand theirs.

But those are generalities. What is Monticello like?

Visiting Monticello

These days, when you arrive at the site, you park a little way down the mountain at a lovely visitor’s center. The visitor’s center is a brick plaza with a museum, a shop, an activity center, a theater for an introductory video, and a cafe. There’s a lovely central lily pond with a fountain and a trellis overhead. It’s a pretty introduction to the site. Going up a broad flight of brick steps, you come to the shuttle bus stop. A statue of Jefferson stands there, looking thoughtful and fairly pleased with himself. This is Jefferson after his retirement from the presidency, when he returned to Monticello for good (he remained there for about seventeen years and died there on July 4, 1826). The shuttle takes the guests up the final bit of mountain. You can walk a three-quarter-mile path through the woods, but I decided to save my energy for other things.

The east front.

The east front.

The shuttle lets you off near the east front of the house, which is NOT on the nickel. Jefferson, among other things, didn’t believe that buildings should have a “front” and “back”. So this is the “east front”. Tours inside the house are timed and guided, so I headed off to explore the grounds before my tour began.

The house is flanked by two L-shaped wooden patios that serve as the roof for the service wings below. The patios are at the level of the mansion’s ground floor, and can be accessed from the house by double doors. The “dependencies” beneath are sunk into the hill. At the end of each of patio is a small pavilion, about twelve-by-twelve feet. One pavilion served as an office. Another served as temporary housing for Jefferson and his wife while the house was under construction. It later was used for 20140621_105541parties. The views from these broad walkways and the pavilions are beautiful. Taken together, the plan is a broad u shape, with the mansion at the bottom of the u and the pavilions at each tip.

The dependencies I mentioned stretch beneath the entire length of each patio and underneath the house itself. There are kitchens, an ice house, stalls for horses, more wine cellars than any house but Jefferson’s would ever have need of, a pantry for Jefferson’s expensive imported foods, and privies. This was the domain of the slaves. Jefferson’s wife and then daughter, who ran his household, would have descended here to direct operations, but Jefferson himself would have only rarely visited the place.

Beyond the house is an avenue known as Mulberry Row. This was where many slaves lived and worked. There was a nailery and a smithy here as well as slave residences (rough huts, really). There is a guided talk of about an hour long here, and it is very informative. There has been extensive archaeological digging here along Mulberry Row, turning up valuable information about the life of the slaves at Monticello.

If you walk along Mulberry Row and turn back, you can see the familiar west front of the building, the one of the nickel. Here to the west of the house, there is a fish pond, a law, groves of carefully-planted trees, and paths lined by flowers. South of the house and just down the hill from Mulberry Row are the gardens. As stated, Jefferson was an avid gardener. The gardens have been largely restored to something that would have been familiar to Jefferson. Today, they are still growing and experimenting with various plants and trees. There is also a vineyard and orchard along the slope. On the hazy, humid summer day I was there, the plants were bursting with life and the mountains served as a misty, mystical backdrop. It’s a beautiful place to grow your broccoli.

Jefferson's tombstone.

Jefferson’s tombstone.

I continued away from the house to the west, and came to Jefferson’s grave. His tombstone tells us he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and the founder of the University of Virginia. Those were the things he was most proud of.

Having seen most of what the grounds and dependencies had to offer, it was finally time to enter the house itself.

The tour begins at the main entrance on the east side of the house. As mentioned, the entrance hall does not have a staircase. Instead, Jefferson’s guests were greeted by artifacts/curiosities sent to him by explorers like Lewis and Clark and by gifts from Native American tribes conducting negotiations with the US government. Most of these are now gone, though replacements fill the void. The next room is the square sitting room, which, unusually for this place, is a fairly standard room for things like writing letters or teaching children. Beyond is the book room, which was once crammed with literally thousands of books (this room is less standard for the day and age). The book room looks out onto the greenhouse, another Jefferson peculiarity. The next room is the cabinet, filled with Jefferson’s scientific instruments. Next comes the bedroom with its lofty skylight and alcove bed, and then we come to the parlor. Today, portraits of friends and luminaries hang on the wall: Francis Bacon, George Washington, John Adams, and so on. In Jefferson’s day, the walls were absolutely crammed with portraits. The space not taken up by paintings is taken up by two sets of glass doors. In one direction, the doors open out onto the west lawn. In the other direction, the parlor opens onto the entrance hall by way of double glass doors that close–like magic!–with just the touch of a finger.

Beside the parlor is the dining room and the connected tea room. The dining room is painted a shocking–but to me pleasing–yellow. The tea room is a glass-lined room; basically, it’s a solarium or conservatory.

Down a narrow passage, you get a sight of the narrow stairs and the double-sided cabinet used to send dishes to the dining room. You then arrive at Mr. Madison’s room. James Madison, who followed Jefferson as president, was a good friend and stayed so often in this room that it is named after him. There’s another alcove bed here, but unlike the one in Jefferson’s room, only one side is open. The other three sides of the bed are enclosed.

From here, the tour takes you out onto the north terrace, where Jefferson used a telescope to oversee the building of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia below.

Monticello is an unusual place, and not somewhere I would be comfortable living. I was charmed by the views and its idiosyncrasies, but I was only there for a few hours. The mansion was, of course, very particular to Jefferson, so my predilections are immaterial. It was his world and his house, and everyone else was just living in it. You have to admire how much of himself he put into the house–and it is a treasure for all generations.

So, if you ever get a chance, go see Monticello. It’s more than worth the price of admission.

Statue of Jefferson at the visitor's center.

Statue of Jefferson at the visitor’s center.