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  • The Eloquence of Nature in Notes on the State of Virginia
  • Chiara Cillerai (bio)

In his 1821 autobiographical retrospective, Thomas Jefferson recounts the history of his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson recalls that, in 1780, he had welcomed the Abbé de Marbois' questionnaire about his home state as a way to organize the memoranda he had collected during the years: "I thought this a good occasion to embody their [the memoranda's] substance, which I did in the order of Mr. Marbois' queries so as to answer his wish and to arrange them for my own use" (Autobiography 55). From this description, Jefferson goes on to discuss the history of the book's publication. He explains his decision to print a limited edition in 1785 as a choice dictated by his friends' requests and by the economic advantage that printing had over hand copying. Then, he describes his attempts at improving the French translation, and, finally, how he had decided to give the book to the British press in 1787: "A London bookseller, on seeing the translation, requested me to permit him to print the English original. I thought it best to do so to let the world see that it was not really so bad as the French translation had made it appear. And this is the true history of that publication" (Autobiography 55). In the two excerpts, Jefferson carefully presents himself as an authorial agent in the service of a series of separate entities: Marbois, Jefferson's friends, and the world. This distancing from the act of writing and the sharp language of these passages reflect the conciseness and the direct tone that characterize the text of the autobiography.

The abrupt ending, with the sentence "and this is the true history of that publication," also evinces an anxiety in Jefferson that does not appear in other parts of this work. The appeal to truth in Jefferson's concluding remarks evokes the appeals to factuality common to contemporary fiction and reveals Jefferson's uneasiness with the narrative that he wrote four decades earlier.1 In particular, the account's linguistic form and the use of the expression "true history" reveal the troubled relationship between the [End Page 59] writer and the processes of writing and of making his work public. The relationship between Notes and the realm of belles lettres appears to be Jefferson's main preoccupation when he looks back at his work.

The connection between the realm of belles lettres and the realm of science is not merely a feature of Jefferson's reminiscence about his work, but it is central to the most scientific chapter of the book, in which Jefferson responds to Louis Leclerc de Buffon's claims that American nature is degenerating. In Notes on Virginia's sixth chapter, Query VI, Jefferson resorts to the language and ideas of the cosmopolitan republic of letters for his analysis of American nature. He identifies America as an abstract supranational entity by applying a static view of nature to his portrayal. Using a universalizing language that makes America part of a unified community of science and letters, Jefferson brings together eloquence and the scientific discourse, and establishes America's representative position in the republic of letters. In Query VI, Jefferson claims that Buffon has replaced scientific inquiry with eloquent fiction and supported science with a pseudo-evolutionary view of nature. In opposition, Jefferson uses leading scientific views of "static nature" to propose an empirically based description of American nature. The espousal of these views enables Jefferson to reorganize the rhetorical foundations of the republic of letters. Ultimately, this strategy allows him to remap the metropolitan context in the terms of a cosmopolis with no centers and no margins, and to remove America from its marginal position in the outskirts of the empire. Jefferson's employment of rhetoric and eloquence, however, also blurs the distinction between the discourse of belles lettres and that of science that he wants to establish through empiricism and generates the anxiety that Jefferson still reveals when he speaks of the work 40 years after its composition.

In Query VI, entitled "Productions Mineral, Vegetable and Animal" and subtitled "A...


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