Review of William G. Hyland Jr.'s "Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson"

tags: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Dumas Malone

Kathryn Moore is the author of The American President: A Complete History, From George Washington to Barack Obama.

Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone
by William G. Hyland Jr.
Potomac Books Inc. (2013)

Few biographers can boast of spending nearly all of their professional lives writing a comprehensive biography of one of America's most complex subjects -- in this case, Thomas Jefferson. Dumas Malone began this project when America was in the midst of World War II and concluded it six volumes later during the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. William Hyland, Jr., writes of both biographer and his subject in Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone.

Hyland traces Malone's career taking the reader back to his southern roots in Coldwater, Mississippi. Malone grew up poor economically but rich in the love and care of his parents. He was homeschooled with his siblings by his mother Lillian, a strong-willed woman and suffragette who wanted to see all seven of her children achieve a higher education.

When Malone attended Emory College (today Emory University), he gained some of the classic education that Jefferson would have recognized from his own school days. Malone also acquired a keen understanding of the difference between Northern and Southern attitudes when he continued his graduate education at Yale. He perceived that Southerners wanted to be liked while Northerners wanted to achieve. Malone would later maintain that Jefferson disliked debate and argument, but others (Northerners such as John Adams) seemingly enjoyed it. Malone explained that "what some of Jefferson's enemies used to call hypocrisy was really just his old Southern way of trying to be agreeable." Later Malone himself would be called upon to enter a controversy that was distasteful to his Southern upbringing.

Talk of a relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings first surfaced when Jefferson was engaged in a power struggle with Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s, and the mudslinging continued into the 1800 presidential election through the disgruntled efforts of James Callendar. Jefferson refused to acknowledge the innuendo and instead kept his focus on presidential duties. Over the years, the rumors refused to die but their volume decreased with the works of scholars such as Dumas Malone. His fourth volume of Jefferson and His Time in 1970 provided an appendix about the Hemings story but it certainly did not take center stage in the book. In 1974, however, the spotlight fell squarely on the nearly two-hundred year-old tale when Fawn Brodie published Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History in 1974.

The country was reeling from Watergate and had developed a distaste of its leaders when Brody’s book brought Hemings out of the shadows and onto the national stage. Its popularity instantly awakened the community of Jefferson biographers to race to Jefferson’s defense. Malone wrote of the work: "Much of it is bad history, in my opinion, and much of it is not history at all. In using documents [Brodie], disregards some fundamental rules of evidence, and her psycho-history is largely a work of imagination."

Hyland spends much of the book discussing the ongoing battle that Malone fought to preserve Jefferson's reputation against Brodie and a later novel by Barbara Chase-Riboud that further encouraged the Sally Hemings story. Malone reluctantly fought CBS over the proposed production of a mini-series based on the novel and endured criticism that he and other Jefferson scholars were part of a group to promote canonizing the third president. Malone loathed becoming part of the debate, but as Hyland relates, his aversion was not based on his lack of interest but rather his desire to avoid the press as well as to keep his focus on completing the final volume.

Ultimately Malone and his fellow biographers claimed victory over CBS thanks to its president William Paley (although the project was resurrected some two decades later by the network). By the time of his final volume's publication in 1981, Malone was nearly blind and eighty-nine years old. He had spent nearly 40 years completing this mammoth undertaking -- nearly as long as Jefferson had taken to complete his home, Monticello. Along the way, Malone garnered a Pulitzer Prize, numerous visits to the White House, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Though Hyland takes the reader through Malone's life, education and the Hemings controversy, more, could have been spent on his professorships at both the University of Virginia and Columbia University. And occasionally, the reader is lead on other paths that seem misplaced, especially the chapter on Malone’s mentor, Douglas Southall Freeman. This could easily have been discussed in a paragraph rather than filling a chapter or perhaps been produced as a separate article.

One suspects that the days of one person taking most of their life to complete a multi-volume biography are over. To all appearances, Dumas Malone was not writing Jefferson and His Time to prove his worth or to build his credentials to the academic community. His efforts did gain him awards and audiences with presidents and dignitaries, yet Malone's great contribution remains that he provided a work that continues to inform and enlighten anyone interested in gaining an understanding of Thomas Jefferson.

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