Jefferson’s Sons, Part 3
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” read Maddy, “that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“It does say all people,” Peter said.
Maddy sighed. “Yes. It does.”
What does the first part mean? We hold these truths to be self-evident?”
Maddy paused. “That means–that means, this is so true everybody ought to know it. It’s plain truth. It’s obvious.”
“But people don’t know it,” Peter argued.
“I didn’t read it to tell you that,” Maddy said. “I read it so you’d understand what those two old men were crying about. They believed this a long time ago, when almost nobody else did, and Master Jefferson wrote it down, and they made a whole country around it. And now they’re so old they’re almost dead, and they’re crying for what they did a long time ago.”
“But they didn’t really do it,” Peter said.
Maddy shook his head. “I know,” he said. “But they think they did.”
Several people have noted that this book’s strengths are so strong that they outweigh its weaknesses. While I agree that the strengths are considerable, I remain unconvinced that they compensate for the weaknesses, at least enough to merit Newbery recognition. (But, of course, I believe it deserves a place at the table, otherwise we wouldn’t be spending a third post on it.) I promised some textual analysis to illustrate my points, but since Nina has already done a bit of this, and since I want to avoid, inasmuch as possible, the appearance of piling on, I’ve chosen to examine one larger piece of text rather than many smaller ones. I’ve chosen one of the most powerful scenes in the book: the reunion of Jefferson and Lafayette at Monticello nearly fifty years after the American Revolution–and the subsequent conversation between Maddy and Peter. I’ve only quoted the emotional punch at the end of this scene, but I encourage you to read it in its entirety on pages 327-330.
MODERN PEOPLE IN HISTORICAL DRESS, PART 1
First of all, the excerpt quoted above is actually the second time Maddy reads these words. The first time he reads them as they are actually written, “all men are created equal,” but above he reads, “all people are created equal,” which is not only incorrect, but seems tailored to a modern sensibility, especially seeing as how the word people encompasses both women and blacks. It’s a noble sentiment–a sentiment I happen to agree with–but a modern one nevertheless. I’m not sure how to read the misquotation, but it’s subtle, deliberate, and it gets under my skin for some reason. Maybe I just think the audience doesn’t need to be catered to quite so much, that they have the intellectual tools to understand that “men” can and does encompass “people.” Maybe I would just like more acknowledgement in the text of Maddy’s subtle change. While none of the modern language in this book is problematic for me (historical people in modern dress, in a manner of speaking), I do find that there is oftentimes a modern tone and sensibility that undermines the other literary elements, and this is simply one more manifestation of it, not damning in its own right, but more problematic as part of a larger pattern.
PRESENTATION OF INFORMATION: ACCURACY AND CLARITY
Since Bradley has already stated on this blog that her intention was not to write about Jefferson, but rather his slaves, this next section is sure to be frustrating for some people. It may give some of you apoplectic fits. If you suspect you might be one of these people (yes, Wendy, you!), you may just want to skip down to the next section for my final point.
My biggest problem is the final line in this chapter–“But they think they did.”–because I just don’t believe it rings true at all. Jefferson and Lafayette were under no illusion that “they had made a whole country around [The Declaration of Independence],” they were under no illusion that those bright shining ideals had been absorbed into the Constitution, what with the three-fifths compromise allowing Southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation. Is there an accidental–or deliberate–obfuscation of the Declaration (which declared the colonies independent from Britain) and the Constitution (which bound them together under a single federal government)? Or does the distinction just get lost in an oversimplification?
Jefferson has a poor track record on slavery, contradictory at best and hypocritical at worst. Lafayette, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Many of us read Russell Freedman’s LAFAYETTE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION last year. He wrote the Declaration on the Rights of Man (kind of like the French equivalent of our Declaration of Independence), but I couldn’t remember if Freedman covered Lafayette’s views on slavery. I think he probably did, but not having that book on hand, I did a quick Google search, and found more information than I could have wished for.
From Teaching American History in Maryland: George Washington and the Paradox of Slavery (Maryland State Archives)–
“I would have never drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.” [Lafayette] was appalled that slaves continued to be transported after the Revolution aboard ships flying the American flag.
From Lafayette and Slavery (Lafayette College), comes some correspondence between Lafayette and Jefferson about the Missouri Compromise of 1820, just several years before their reunion at Monticello. Lafayette here repudiates Jefferson’s rationale for allowing slavery to spread into new territory.
Are you sure, my dear friend, that extending the principle of slavery to the new raised states is a method to facilitate the means of getting rid of it? I would have thought that by spreading the prejudices, habits, and calculations of planters over a larger surface you rather increase the difficulties of final liberation. Was it not for that deplorable circumstance of Negro slavery in the Southern States not a word could be objected, when we present American doctrines and constitutions as an example to old Europe.
From Lafayette’s Visit to Monticello (Monticello.org), we have an account of Lafayette’s visit. Israel Gillette (also called Israel Jefferson–he took the surname after his death), who I believe is described as Miss Fanny’s brother in the novel, relates that he overheard the following conversation.
The conversation turned upon the condition of the colored people–the slaves. Lafayette spoke indifferently; sometimes I could scarcely understand him. But on this occasion my ears were eagerly taking in every sound that proceeded from the venerable patriot’s mouth.
Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightly hold ownership in his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle-the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be mutually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were. educated, and so on. Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom. He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived. To the latter proposition of Gen. Lafayette, Mr. Jefferson in part assented. He was in favor of teaching the slaves to learn to read print; that to teach them to write would enable them to forge papers, when they could no longer be kept in subjugation. This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.
While Lafayette comes off much more favorably than the backsliding Jefferson, neither of them labored under the illusion that the ideals of Declaration had been absorbed into the Constitution or society at large. I don’t want to belabor that point, but my next questions are these: Is the information presented about Jefferson and Lafayette in this scene accurate? Is it presented with clarity? And now for the most important question: Is it important? It is such a small part of the novel–miniscule, really–and it falls largely outside the scope of the story. But then, too, it’s an important part of this scene, and this scene is an important part of the book. I leave it for you to debate this point in the comments.
Now the people who were advised against reading this section, but are stubbornly doing so anyway (yes, Wendy, you!), would be very quick to point out that since our viewpoint characters in this scene, Maddy and Peter, would not have any way of knowing the very things I just complained about (save for the last quote which could have been passed by word of mouth to all the slaves at Monticello) it mitigates or absolves the book from the responsibility of accuracy and clarity in this regard. But does it?
MODERN PEOPLE IN HISTORICAL DRESS, PART 2
The reunion of Jefferson and Lafayette at Monticello apparently touched all of those who witnessed it. “Even the slaves wept,” Peter noted in his recollection of the event. In the novel, however, Peter is not only uncomfortable with everybody’s outward display of emotion, but he is somewhat bewildered by it. “I don’t understand this at all,” he confides to Maddy, and then Maddy takes him to read the Declaration. I do not mean to suggest that Bradley is not faithful to the historical record. She is faithful; it’s a matter of interpretation, as she notes in the afterword. “Different people might draw on the same facts I did and come up with a different story. That’s okay.”
What I do question, however, is that not only are our two young, naive viewpoint characters strangely unaffected by the prevailing sentiment of the day, but their response actually runs directly opposite to it. Their discussion of the Declaration, simultaneously naive and cynical, closes the scene with an ironic twist that delivers an emotional punch to the gut–reminiscent of the style of OCTAVIAN NOTHING. It inflames the passions as well as the intellect and leaves the reader with a fundamentally altered view of the founding principles of America. The point of this scene is that Peter–and by extension the reader–in a very visceral way comes to a new historical understanding. If it’s not done properly, however, if it’s not worked convincingly into the world of the novel, then it can make readers feel like they are being shaped, that the book is tailored to political ends and cultural values.
Now the way that Maddy and Peter behave in this scene is fairly consistent with the way that they behave throughout the novel (although some of us might say they consistently behave like mouthpieces). However, because their response differs so greatly from the adults, both slave and free, and then, too, because it is Maddy’s conversation after the reunion that is catalyst for this revelation rather than Miss Sally’s conversation before his arrival, I just cannot help but feel that I am not only listening to mouthpieces, but they are telling me decidedly modern sentiments. It’s the means I take issue with here not the end. I appreciate everything Bradley has done here on a political level– I just don’t think this message logically flows from this event; it’s a non sequitur.
IS THE GLASS HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL?
One of the things that is fascinating about this discussion is that it’s largely about perception. If the book didn’t have recognizable strengths in most, if not all, of the literary elements then we wouldn’t be talking about it so much. Whereas Nina took a single criticism–unconvincing characterization–and showed multiple instances of it, I have taken single scene to task with multiple criticisms. I like many things about this book, but what I dislike about the book I really, really dislike. My intention with this post is not to pile on, but rather to get closer to this question: How can we read the same text and come away with such fundamentally different readings?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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