- Thomas Jefferson's Scrapbooks: Poems of Nation, Family & Romantic Love Collected by America's Third President
Like Gibbon musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, Jonathan Gross seems to have been visited by the inspiration for this curious "edition" [End Page 165] of Jefferson's poetry scrapbooks while staying in the Roosevelt cottage at Kenwood. Nothing remotely like this happened to me when I stayed in the cottage some years ago, though I will confess I wondered whether the mattress had been changed since FDR's days. Unlike Gross, I was not moved to ponder FDR's use of Jefferson, certainly not to remark that, "Like Jefferson in 1808, Roosevelt pursued isolationist policies until military action (in 1812 and 1942) became inevitable" (7). And there you have one of the many problems with this book: All too often, Gross can't get his history right.
The work's subtitle, Poems of Nation, Family & Romantic Love Collected by America's Third President, gives readers a reasonably accurate notion of what they will find here. The manuscript sources on which the editor draws are scrapbooks of clippings kept by Jefferson during his presidency. The two used in Gross's edition contain primarily poetry (there are another two that in the main consist of prose excerpts). All four scrapbooks, he tells us, are "housed at the Alderman Library" at the University of Virginia (465). Housed at Alderman they may be, but one of the two volumes of poetry, we learn a few lines later, "is located in the visitor center at Monticello" (465).
The editor has taken slightly more than a quarter of the material in Jefferson's scrapbooks (I counted 229 out of the 884 pieces of poetry he indicates the scrapbooks contain) and then rearranged it under the headings of "Poems of Nation," "Poems of Family," and "Poems of Romantic Love." Because he never gets around to providing a detailed explanation of why he chose to include some pieces and not others, we are left to wonder what prompted his choices and whether a different selection would have required other rubrics. Nor does he do much to give us the necessary background for the pieces he does print. Thus he fails to identify the newspapers in which the poems appeared—it would have been easy enough, knowing the papers to which Jefferson subscribed while in the White House, to have gone through The National Intelligencer, for example, and picked out a good many of the poems Jefferson clipped.
Similarly, Gross has nothing real to say about poems that appeared in the American press of the day and that didn't make it into Jefferson's collection, although we are at least given a complete list of those that did. Were the choices the third president made totally random, or were there principles of selection at work here, principles that may have excluded the work of poets Jefferson disliked for one reason or another? Surely information of this sort would be worth having. So, too, would be something [End Page 166] explicit about whether the availability of poetry that could be clipped from the newspapers affected Jefferson's book-buying habits. And one would certainly like to know how Jefferson's clipping and scrapbook practices compared with those of other Americans of his day. Just how common was it to take up one's scissors and clip this or that item? How common was it to paste them onto sheets of paper and assemble a book? Was this rarer than we might at first think, if only because newspapers passed from hand to hand, except, of course, among elite readers like Jefferson? And what is the relationship between the clipping practices of the early nineteenth century and the sort of commonplacing in which Jefferson (like so many others earlier) engaged? Such questions, however, do not seem to have interested the editor. More's the pity.
Gross comes at his Jefferson texts as a specialist in the...