Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pg. 69: Jon Kukla's "Mr. Jefferson's Women"

The current feature at the Page 69 Test: Jon Kukla's Mr. Jefferson's Women.

About the book, from the author's website:

A pioneering study of Thomas Jefferson’s relationships with women in his personal life and in American society and politics. The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote the words “all men are created equal,” was surprisingly hostile toward women. In eight chapters based on fresh research in little-used sources, Jon Kukla offers the first comprehensive study of Jefferson and women since the controversies of his presidency.

Educated with other boys at a neighborhood boarding school, young Jefferson learned early that homemaking was the realm of his mother and six sisters. From adolescence through maturity, his views about domesticity scarcely wavered, while his discomfort around women brought a succession of embarrassments as he sought to control his emotions. After Rebecca Burwell declined his awkward proposal of marriage, Jefferson reacted first with despondence, then with predatory misogyny, and finally with the attempted seduction of Elizabeth Moore Walker, the wife of a boyhood friend. His marriage at twenty-nine to Martha Wayles Skelton brought a decade of genuine happiness, but ended in despair with her death from complications of childbirth. In Paris a few years later, Maria Cosway rekindled his capacity for romantic friendship but ultimately disappointed his hopes. Against the background of these relationships, Kukla offers a fresh and cogent account of Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings.

Jefferson’s individual relationships with these women are examined in depth in five chapters. Abigail Adams, the women of Paris, and the wife of a British ambassador figure in the first of two closing chapters that examine Jefferson’s attitudes toward women in public life. In the last chapter, Kukla draws connections between Jefferson’s life experiences and his role in defining the subordination of women in law, culture, and education during and after the American Revolution.

Among the early praise for Mr. Jefferson's Women:

"Jon Kukla's sensitive portrayal of Jefferson's relationships with the women in his life leads to new insights not only about his infatuations and loves but also about his attitudes toward women in general -- attitudes that influenced his political writings and his presidency. Clearly, there is much to be learned by applying the questions and techniques of women's history to the study of 'great white men.'"
--Mary Beth
Norton, author of Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society

"Jon Kukla has crafted a persuasive, insightful and eminently readable interpretation of Jefferson’s poignant and occasionally mystifying relationships with women. He has captured surprising sides of his personality – sometimes masculinely conventional but often endearing. Yet Jefferson appears less beguiling than what we might expect from the inventive master of Monticello."
--Bertram Wyatt-Brown, author of The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760’s –1880’s

"In this lithe and lively survey, Jon Kukla carries the conversation forward in a most inviting way. How did Jefferson experience romantic love? And what can we know about his impulses? Mr. Jefferson’s Women is for those who do not shy from addressing delicate issues of early American politics and culture."
--Andrew Burstein, author of Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello

"Jon Kukla provides a compelling, insightful portrait of Thomas Jefferson’s intimate life, tracing the fear of women’s power that increasingly defined the Virginian’s relationships. Kukla brilliantly links Jefferson’s personal anxieties about the disruptive influence of women on him to Jefferson’s endorsement of political and legal restrains upon those he called “the weaker sex” throughout his lifetime. This is a book that every admirer and critic of Thomas Jefferson must read."
--Carol Berkin, author of Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence

"This highly insightful study ... investigates Thomas Jefferson's relationships with women, from Elizabeth Moore Walker, the married neighbor with whom Jefferson may have had an affair, to Sally Hemings, the slave whose children he purportedly fathered. One of the most fascinating chapters examines the young Jefferson's failed attempts to woo a classmate's sister, Rebecca Burwell, whose rejection of his marriage proposal may have incited the misogyny found throughout his writings. Perhaps the least satisfying section studies Jefferson's relationship with his wife, Martha: since Jefferson destroyed their private correspondence after she died, Kukla's re-creation of their relationship is necessarily sketchy. The conclusion moves to a larger argument concerning Jefferson's thinking about women as citizens. Kukla shows that Jefferson was much less open to women's political participation and education than were contemporary Enlightenment thinkers, and his definition of America as a white male polity was rooted in his personal discomfort with women. This is one of the most discerning and provocative studies of Jefferson in years."
--Publishers Weekly

"It is hard to dislike a book that, like this one, starts off with a discussion of how J. Peterman Company shirts are related to Thomas Jefferson. Kukla ... not only knows his subject well but writes in a fluid and sparkling style.... Kukla's research is impeccable, and his voluminous notes are a treasure trove."
--Library Journal

"After a stormy scholarly conference about Thomas Jefferson's long affair with his slave Sally Hemings, Virginia historian Kukla ... looked for a book about Jefferson's relations with women in general, assuming that it already existed. Instead, he ended up writing it, and his conclusions are dismaying. Kukla asserts that after belle Rebecca Burwell rejected his proposal when he was 20, Jefferson demonstrated throughout his adult life predatory urges toward women, a fear of disruptive female influences (exacerbated by the alarming conduct of women during the French Revolution) and a distasteful endorsement of the master-slave model for male-female relations. Despite his friendship with Abigail ("Remember the Ladies") Adams, Jefferson remained adamant about excluding women from the liberties of the new American republic.... Closing with a grim litany of his subject's consistent opposition to "any departure from an exclusively domestic role as republican wives and mothers," Kukla concludes that "Jefferson's personal aversion to and fear of women in public life shaped American laws and traditions in ways that echo into the twenty-first century. Necessary reading — but an awful revelation of a great man's failings."
--Kirkus Reviews

Read an excerpt from Mr. Jefferson's Women and learn more about the book and author at Jon Kukla's website.

Jon Kukla is the author of A Wilderness So Immense. He received his B.A. from Carthage College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. From 1973 through 1990 he directed historical research and publishing at the Library of Virginia. From 1992 to 1998 he was curator and then director of the Historic New Orleans Collection. From 2000 to 2007 he was director of Red Hill – The Patrick Henry National Memorial in Charlotte County, Virginia.

The Page 69 Test: Mr. Jefferson's Women.

--Marshal Zeringue