Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind

Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind

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by Michael Knox Beran
     
 

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"I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended."

— Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson suffered during his life from periodic bouts of dejection and despair, shadowed intervals during which he was full of "gloomy forebodings" about what lay ahead.

Not long before he composed the Declaration of Independence, the young

Overview

"I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended."

— Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson suffered during his life from periodic bouts of dejection and despair, shadowed intervals during which he was full of "gloomy forebodings" about what lay ahead.

Not long before he composed the Declaration of Independence, the young Jefferson lay for six weeks in idleness and ill health at Monticello, paralyzed by a mysterious "malady." Similar lapses were to recur during anxious periods in his life, often accompanied by violent headaches. In Jefferson's Demons, Michael Knox Beran illuminates an optimistic man's darker side — Jefferson as we have rarely seen him before.

The worst of these moments came after his wife died in 1782. But two years later, after being dispatched to Europe, Jefferson recovered nerve and spirit in the salons of Paris, where he fell in love with a beautiful young artist, Maria Cosway. When their affair ended, Jefferson's health again broke down. He set out for the palms and temples of southern Europe, and though he did not know where the therapeutic journey would take him or where it would end, his encounter with the old civilizations of the Mediterranean was transformative. The Greeks and Romans taught him that a man could make productive use of his demons.

Jefferson's immersion in the mystic truths of the Old World gave him insights into mysteries of life and art that Enlightenment philosophy had failed to supply. Beran skillfully shows how Jefferson drew on the esoteric lore he encountered to transform anxiety into action. On his return to America, Jefferson entered the most productive period of his life: He created a new political party, was elected president, and doubled the size of the country. His private labors were no less momentous...among them, the artistry of Monticello and the University of Virginia.

Jefferson's Demons is an elegantly composed account of the strangeness and originality of one Founder's genius. Michael Knox Beran uncovers the maps Jefferson used to find his way out of dejection and to forge a new democratic culture for America. Here is a Jefferson who, with all his failings, remains one of his country's greatest teachers and prophets.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
At one point in Jefferson's Demons, Beran refers to the "moist prose" of Rousseau. That nice phrase characterizes Beran's style as well, especially when he graces the record of Jefferson's travels around the European continent with his own erudite observations. Although Beran includes a narrative of Jefferson's public life, it takes a back seat to his emphasis on Jefferson the artist, poet and aesthete. — Joyce Appleby
The New York Times
Although Beran purports to cover Jefferson's life, there is almost no discussion and analysis of Jefferson's politics or of slavery. Instead, Beran, a lawyer who is the author of a book about Robert Kennedy, The Last Patrician, offers us an extraordinarily imaginative account of Jefferson's inner life, an interior world that we have never seen described in quite this way before. Although Jefferson is usually viewed as someone with a sunny and sanguine temperament, Beran contends that beneath the reasoned surface of his thinking lay depths of gloomy forebodings and dark fears of ennui. — Gordon S. Wood
Publishers Weekly
While it's hard to imagine that the market needs yet another work on Thomas Jefferson, this thoughtful reflection on our third president's disposition and cast of mind merits company with the best recent works about the man. Beran gives us a Jefferson less rationalistic and intellectual than full of sentiment and tender emotions, a classic 18th-century example of "the man of feeling." Beran's Jefferson finds inspiration not in the philosophy of Locke or Newton but in poetry, beauty and scenery. Beran (The Last Patrician) is most at home with the inward-looking Jefferson, and the book slows when the author has to deal with Jefferson the public figure and politician. But its center of gravity (a quarter of the entire work) is Beran's splendid treatment of Jefferson's nine-month grand tour of Europe, 1786-1787. The author follows his subject through France and Italy, evokes the natural and historic landscape, and reports to great effect Jefferson's views of what he saw and how he felt. For all this, Beran strains credulity by making Jefferson out to be someone who invented himself. (Surely Ben Franklin is the model for that!) Yet the work's great value is to remind us that Jefferson was as much affected by mysteries of the unknown and fears for himself and mankind as he was the optimist who steered his bark "with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern"-the Jefferson we're acquainted with. While this is not new knowledge, it's good to be reminded of it, and Beran has done that with style and success. (Oct. 7) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An examination of Jefferson’s career with attention to his psychological states, his debates with his inner voices, and his struggles with Federalist adversaries. Lawyer/writer Beran (The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy, 1998) has an efflorescent style that sometimes charms, sometimes cloys (he’s especially fond of alliteration), but he says many striking things about Jefferson, the man and the politician. Jefferson’s greatest productivity often followed hard upon headachy periods of ennui, the author argues, but he establishes little beyond an interesting correlation. Beran divides his treatment into four seasonal sections, beginning with spring and ending with winter, and swiftly deals with the superficial biographical facts. Slavery is a consistent motif, and the author generally does well to point out—repeatedly—Jefferson’s failure to liberate people at Monticello as he simultaneously called for the liberation of people in general. (He is reluctant to believe that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children and appears to think that a master’s sexual relations with a slave could be something other than rape.) In his sprightly style, Beran takes us to familiar biographical landmarks: the Declaration of Independence, the death of Martha Jefferson, the sojourn in France, the Grand Tour, the battles with Hamilton, the decline of Aaron Burr, the two presidential terms (he characterizes both inaugural addresses as dull), the University of Virginia, the now-and-then intimacy with John Adams, and death. He also deals quite effectively with the troubling contradictions in Jefferson, a democrat who lived like an aristocrat (fine wine, fine food, finefirst editions, high debts), a man versed in classical ethics who tried to purge the Supreme Court of his political enemies, a true believer in the Constitution who stepped outside its boundaries to enlarge those of the US with the purchase of Louisiana. A particularly intriguing chapter describes interior conversations among various portions of Jefferson’s mind. Despite minor flaws, Jefferson’s Demons manifests high energy, expansive scholarship, and fluid language.
From the Publisher
Louis Auchincloss Beran has written a fascinating account of the glories, complexities, and discrepancies of the philosophic thinking of the most imaginative and scholarly of our presidents. He shows us how Jefferson used his knowledge of the spiritual rites of ancient civilizations to help direct his inner genius or "demon" to convert "...lust into love, passion into noble architecture, bloody revolution into ordered liberty, and so on." But he also shows us the occasional bad moments when the sage of Monticello became the victim of the manifold contradictions of his protean nature.

Arthur Herman author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World Michael Knox Beran gives us a Thomas Jefferson we have not met before. This is not the intrepid Founding Father and sage from Monticello, or the slave-owning ravisher of Sally Hemings. This is Jefferson in flesh and blood, in mind and soul, a man haunted by the sights, smells, ideas, obsessions, of his own age. Michael Beran has given us a book of brilliance and imagination.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743232791
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
09/30/2003
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.42(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Michael Knox Beran was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1966. He is the author of a book about Robert Kennedy, The Last Patrician, a New York Times Notable Book of 1998. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and The New Yorker. A graduate of Columbia, Cambridge, and Yale Law School, he is a lawyer, and he lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife and daughter.

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Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Beran tries almost desperately to impress the readers with his knowledge of Jefferson, geography, and history. It is difficult to accept a biography, or any literary effort, that includes ninety word and six line sentences. I admire Jefferson, but I think Beran has been overly protective of the man.