The Seven Ages of Jefferson

You probably know that I am starting an entirely new humanities enterprise, my one-man program about the poetry and plays of William Shakespeare. I began my life as a public humanities scholar decades ago while studying English Renaissance literature, first at the University of Minnesota and then at Oxford. I’ve given my whole adult life to close reading of great texts, whether it was the sermons of John Donne, or the statements that Robert Oppenheimer made after the atomic bomb detonated successfully at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. I can feel the nuances in Jefferson’s carefully modulated letters. I have honed my ability to find the fissure points in historical personalities and some contemporary ones too. The humanities have made me generous in observing the ones who then and now rise above the radar, because the humanities have taught me that Saints Theresa and Francis were not always saints, and not even Mussolini and Richard Nixon are void of spectacular moments of insight and achievement.

One of the passages I will be reciting in my Shakespeare performances is the Seven Ages of Man from As You Like It. You’ve heard it: All the World’s a Stage, all the men and women merely players. Melancholy Jacques takes us through the seven phases of a man’s life: the puking infant; the reluctant schoolboy; the absurd and pathetic young man in love for the first time; the edgy and aggressive soldier; the accomplished, pompous, and complacent professional; the senior citizen getting fussy while his manliness and virility slip away; and the demented toothless second childhood, in which we gum pabulum and mumble incoherently as we wait for death to take us. It would be good to have the female version, the Seven Ages of Woman, because I don’t think they unfold in quite the same way.

I’m somewhere between the well-fed and complacent justice and the geezer whose body is rapidly shedding muscle tone and testosterone, but I’m on the other side of the mid-life meridian, and for the first time in my life I can hear the clock ticking. I make lists of what I still want to accomplish. The list is very long and none of it can be purchased with a gold Amex card. There are a dozen books I want to write, films I want to make, geographies and cultures I want to explore; Latin tracts I want to translate, great neglected writers I want to read, awards I want to win, and relationships I want still to discover.

We’ve been doing this Jefferson 101, out of character, biographical series, and I promise we will eventually make our way to Jefferson’s last letter, written on June 24, 1826, just ten days before his death at the age of 83. We will get there. One of the things that makes Jefferson remarkable, and a bit maddening, is that we know so little about his inner life. From about the age of 19 he became the Jefferson we know and admire, and he remained that Enlightenment being, that rationalist, reformer, sometimes radical political visionary, gardener, and American dreamer for seven productive decades. You could never say Jefferson is bland, but there is a homogeneity in those seven decades that lacks the drama of, say, Alexander Hamilton’s roller coaster life, or Theodore Roosevelt’s developing progressivism, or Lincoln’s tragic but humorous growth from slightly unscrupulous Illinois attorney and raconteur to the most dignified individual ever to live in the White House, present company of course excepted!

Let’s review.

First Age of man: We know nothing of Jefferson’s infancy except that his first memory—and this is very telling—was of being carried by a trusted black slave on a cushion on a horse from one plantation to another. No muking, very little puking, we surmise.

Second Age: Jefferson was the quintessential schoolboy, never whining, never reluctant, able to shoulder friends, drink, gambling, horses, and even the lure of female sexuality off the stage so he could conjugate Greek verbs and read the whole corpus of Enlightenment literature.

Third Age: Jefferson was at first an abashed lover, bungling his puppy romance with Rebecca Burwell, and then singing his way into the arms of Martha Wayles Skelton. But he had a taste for the forbidden, first other men’s wives, at least briefly, and later, after the death of his wife, he appears to have had a taste for a tincture of miscegenation. Think Shari Belafonte or Hallie Berry.

Fourth Age: Jefferson did not have much masculine huff and puff in his nature. He was never a soldier, never shot at another man, never lead troops into battle. He was a masterful administrator as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, but his essential gentleness made him inadequate for a period of grave emergency in the southern states. He would have liked to duck this epoch in his life, because as he said he had no more desire to govern men than ride his horse through a storm. We must believe his incessant refrain that he would rather be home gardening and baking bricks for yet another rebuild at Monticello.

Fifth Age: As I have said, for seven decades Jefferson was the best prepared man in every room, and the most articulate, preferring the written word to the arts of public confrontation. One feels that by the time he was 25 he was fully formed as America’s exemplar of high mindedness, Enlightenment, and perfect manners. By pretending that the dark side of human nature did not exist, he managed to become one of the most productive and seemingly cheerful men who ever lived.

Sixth Age: There is a whiff of Shakespeare’s "lean and slippered pantaloon" in Jefferson’s affectation of the shabby genteel. Greeting White House visitors in his house slippers, with his stockings down gyved like Hamlet’s, letting his pet mockingbird Dick sit on his shoulders as he administered the new republic, puttering with his copy machines, his calendar clock, and his dumb waiters. He even owned reading spectacles, but seldom used them.

And finally the seventh age: There was no “second childishness and mere oblivion” in Jefferson. He never became that man slumped over in his wheelchair nodding off with Vanna White and Pat Sajak exchanging light game show flirtation in the background. Jefferson was all Jefferson—lucid, organized, scholarly, radical, dreaming of agrarian republics to the hundredth and the thousandth generation—right up to the last hour, when, with his usual rage for order and commitment to precision, he willed his death to be on the Fourth of July.

Me, I’ve got miles to go before I sleep, and promises to keep, and projects in every direction, and hungers that cannot be fed with beef and Yorkshire pudding. I’m counting on industrial medicine and a better national health care system to keep me alive until I accomplish something. But I can promise you this. I will never let myself live long enough to be a lean and slippered pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side. When I go it will be out in the broken country to the West, with binoculars on nose and camera on side, struck by lightning and eaten by a mountain lion.

Shakespeare was a genius, but he never saw the American West.

William Hodges, Jacques and the Wounded Stag: 'As You Like It,' Act II, Scene I from Wikimedia Commons.