Joining our conversation this week is the award-winning author Joseph Ellis. We discuss his book First Family: Abigail and John Adams in part one of two shows as our first entry for the Thomas Jefferson Hour Book Club series.
"Every letter has a basis and a purpose … I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about the recipient."
— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson
We speak this week with President Jefferson about the art of letter writing. Prompted by a letter from a listener, Jefferson shares his insights on the process. The exact number of letters Jefferson wrote is not known, but it is safe to say he wrote in excess of 20,000.
Clay and David offer a heartfelt thank you to 1776 Club members and share email responses to show #1245 This Thing of Darkness. They also discuss future plans for episodes, including wrapping up the Jefferson 101 series. David goes "off" when Clay tries to pass himself off as an ambivalent person.
If you ask me what the most successful relationship was in Jefferson’s 83-year life, I can answer unequivocally that it was with his elder daughter Martha, whom he called Patsy, at least when she was young. She adored her father, and was a fierce and lifelong protector of his privacies, his sensitive spirit, and his reputation.
This year I had the joy of making the Lewis and Clark trip with my daughter, now 20, who is spending her summer in Dakota with her adoring papa. For many years I have wanted to bring her on this tour, but she was a serious 4H participant through high school, and the county fair down in northwestern Kansas always competed with Lewis and Clark. Pigs and pies trumped John Colter and Pierre Cruzatte.
When I graduated from high school my parents bought me a portable typewriter. It was a brand new Hermes 3000 manual with a gray-green plastic body. It was a beautiful machine, and I used it for everything I wrote for the next 20 years. In fact, even now, one or two or three times per year, when I want to write something I regard as really important—a letter to a lost and found friend, a letter to my daughter about something that really matters, a letter to the governor—I get out my Hermes 3000 and hack away at it. There is something joyful and sensual in lining up two fresh sheets of paper and advancing them carefully over the platen, seeing if the mechanical Tab button still works to indent the date, and then staring at that blank sheet of paper while thinking about how to start. No delete button, or cut and paste feature, on a typewriter.
It always makes me a little sad, afterwards, to slide the cover over the machine and place it back on its special shelf.
I got a portable typewriter for graduation; my classmate Curt Pavlicek got a Corvette. I say this without undue bitterness, though I have managed to find a way to say at several times per year for 42 years in a row. And nothing makes me grumpier than some well-meaning friend who says, "But think of how much more use you got out of your typewriter than he from a car."
Wrong. And beside the point.
This is the time of the year (or was) when gift and stationery stores ran out of dictionaries and Cross pens. Probably some older people still give them as gifts, but they have essentially gone the way of Brylcreem and Burma Shave signs. I gave my last Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary to a high school graduate about ten years ago. He looked at me like I had given him a copy of the 1852 World Almanac for Albania or a rebuilt butter churn. In the age of spellcheck, the freestanding dictionary is regarded as a gift of desperation purchased by a fuddy-duddy who should have just written a check.
We all know that a dictionary is much more than a spelling guide. Free online dictionaries are so rudimentary as to be almost worthless. In his fascinating book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester offers the following wonderful sentence: "A dictionary is the history of a people from a certain point of view." Almost no day goes by when I do not consult the dictionary—Webster's Third New International whenever possible. After I have opened it to my word, I invariably smooth the sheets several times as if I were touching a fine piece of mahogany or ivory. At earlier points in my life, when I had more leisure, I made it a rule to check the three words before and the three words after the one I had just looked up.
Try defining the following words: truth, north, soul, beauty. She who can do this is a genius.
Over the course of time, I've been asked to deliver the graduation address at a dozen or so colleges and high schools. I always say yes if my schedule permits, because I love the excitement in the auditorium. The proud parents, the snippy and sarcastic siblings, the odd little family "demonstrations" and cheering sections for the kid they reckoned would never graduate from anything. The graduate—usually a boy—who performs some pre-rehearsed trick on the stage: a somersault, a pirouette, the thrusting open of the gown to reveal a Superman t-shirt, a flat-on-the-floor genuflection to the college president. You can usually discern the families of the ones who are the first in their line to graduate from college. I find that very moving. It is such an important moment in the history of that family. My father, a grateful veteran, said the GI Bill of Rights was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in the history of the United States. He and my mother were both the first.
When I give the graduation address, I always start by saying, "I am well aware that the only thing that now stands between you and your college degree is the knucklehead at this podium, so I will try to be brief." And for once I usually am. And I always start with a comic line from Woody Allen's "My Speech to the Graduates": "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." But in recent years people have not laughed at this so heartily as before, and I am thinking of retiring it until the next American Era of Good Feelings.
Graduation addresses are paradoxical things. First, nobody is really listening. You are just a kind of necessary "fill." I don't remember what anyone said at my graduations, or who they were, but I'm pretty sure they said, "today is the first day of the rest of your life," or "this is not an end, but a beginning." Second, the kind of people colleges get to deliver graduation addresses are usually successful workaholics who have devoted every waking minute to achievement, but who now say, "Make sure you take time for your heart. Relax more. Just laze about sometimes. Buy a skateboard. Don't just stop and smell the roses. Grow some roses." But wait, Mr. Jobs, if you had done that, would we have the iPhone?
Third, assuming the graduation speaker actually has any insight about life (doubtful), that wisdom came from a long and winding journey through the maze of life, with triumphs and failures and periods of doubt and self-destruction, from sudden visitations of unearned misfortune, but also from unearned victories. You can't have wisdom sprinkled on your soul by someone who flew in first class yesterday evening for the reception. You have to earn it through the adventure and pain of an authentic life. You can tell an 18-year-old 100 times, "cherish your parents, for you will be them in thirty years," but it doesn't mean much until you figure it out for yourself. You're probably better off giving more useful advice. "Always back up your hard drive." "Get out of your way." "The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places."
Fourth, nobody's listening.
When I left the country to study abroad for a couple of years, I asked my father, a brainy and thoughtful man, for his advice. He paused. And then he said, "Never kill a cop." He went on to explain, "If you kill a cop, you will be known as a cop killer, and all the cops on the beat will be after you." Actually, that is really good advice, the only advice that I can honestly say I have hearkened to in life, and so far it has worked out pretty well.
When I graduated from college, my father sent me a fabulous gift that could be contained in a stamped envelope. I opened it on graduation day at the University of Minnesota. I quote it in its entirety. "Dear Son, Your college experience has now cost your mother and me $17,345.67. Congratulations. Best wishes to you in your future endeavors."
Your was underlined.
Photograph from the Library of Congress, 3 June 1914.
My daughter (now 19) and I were two specks among the 18,000 who made their pilgrimage to the Fargodome to hear McCartney, who is now 72 years old. She was born 25 years after the Beatles broke up, 14 years after the murder of John Lennon in New York, and George Harrison died when she was just seven years old. All the way to Fargo I wondered what Paul McCartney could possibly mean to her or anyone who was born a full generation after their apotheosis.
By the time you read these words I will be walking the streets of Rome with my favorite person in the world.
Over the years I have written fairly frequently about my daughter. My reason for doing so was that she was having a typical Great Plains childhood in a town the size of Mott—growing up with daily access to a family farm, 4-H, cheerleading, the Christmas pageant at church, driving a grain truck during wheat harvest, the local loudmouths denouncing the Federal Government while waiting for their USDA deficiency payments. You know, rural life on the Great Plains.
Since she went off to an eastern university I have written about her less, because her experiences now are less meaningful as a window on the Great Plains, which is my principal subject. I frankly doubt that she will ever come back, except for holidays and burials. In her short lifetime she has witnessed a hardening of the spiritual arteries of rural Kansas (let's pretend it is only Kansas), and she never took to the windswept bluffs and the seasonal rivers of the plains the way her mother and father each did. Ah, but I had the greatest mentor in the world.
Sometime back in October, she called me from her dorm room and said, "I want to talk about Spring Break." My heart sank. Film loops of the 1960 "classic" Where the Boys Are had instantly begun to run through my head—and they were at the innocent hijinks end of the Spring Break spectrum. What if it's Girls Gone Wild in Fort Lauderdale, Cabo, South Padre Island, Jamaica, Aruba? The dreaded and deadly Aruba! But then she interrupted my nightmare reverie with, "Dad, if you are free during those dates would you take me to Rome for Spring Break?"
I doubt that she could have spoken any other sentence in the world that would have pleased me more fully: Rome, Spring Break, Papa. I cleared my schedule. We booked tickets. She chose the hotel.
Nerds Gone Wild.
There are so many "must see" sites in Rome—things you must see every single time you go—that there is never much time for the scores of second tier attractions, and the thousands of third tier attractions, any one of which would be the most important cultural destination in North Dakota or Montana, if Caesar Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) or Pope Julius II (1443-1513) had happened to have built them here. There are only a handful of inexhaustible cities on earth, and Rome is at the top of the list: Rome, Paris, London, Vienna. . . If you went to Paris once a year for the rest of your life, you would never be able to conclude, "Well, I have now seen everything Paris has to offer." Rome, if anything, is even more inexhaustible. Our plan is to walk ten miles a day, maps and apps in hand.
It is her first trip to Rome, my fifth.
My daughter has been studying Latin in a curriculum so rigorous that its sends me reeling when she calls at 11:30 p.m. to ask me about a passage in Catullus or Ovid. So our primary interest—this trip!—is classical Rome and Renaissance Rome, though she has also expressed interest in visiting a museum dedicated to Goethe, and the graves of the English poets Shelley and Keats. The only thing I have insisted upon is that we see as many of Bernini's statues as possible. If it is possible that there is a sculptor greater than Michelangelo, I believe it is Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Virtually our first stop will be Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
I cannot imagine going to Rome and not seeing the Sistine Chapel no matter how many times you have seen it, no matter how frustrating the crowds are, or the guards who are trying to manage those crowds. Or Michelangelo's Pieta, the exquisite sculpture of Mary, the mother of Christ, holding the broken body of her son. Such works of art—there are literally thousands in Rome—are among the greatest expressions of the human spirit on earth, equal to Hamlet and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Parthenon and Dante's Inferno. They are also among the greatest expressions of humankind's spiritual hunger. To see them is to ache for human possibility.
This time, I get to see these things through the eyes of the person whose soul I am most invested in of all the souls on the planet. In the old days I would be leading her from painting to statue to tomb to ruin to mosaic, promising gelato as a dividend for just one more cultural stop. Now she will be leading me to places and works of art she has been reading about in her university core curriculum, and explaining their significance (or their significance to her) while I stand beside her filled with pride and double wonder—wonder at the things we stop to observe, and wonder at the young woman observing them. This happened last spring when my mother and I went to New York for Easter. We three went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and about half an hour into the experience this young sprout said, "Dad, Grandma, I want to show you my favorite Monet." And off we marched into another room. It was one of the supreme moments of my life. I stood next to her as she explicated the painting, looking a good deal like National Lampoon Vacation's Clark Griswold when he is blinking off tears of sentimental family love.
Back home in THIS paradise, my mother and I spent two summers back in the mid-70s wandering around the badlands of North Dakota for a project she was doing with a grant from the ND Department of Public Instruction. She interviewed 50 ranchers and cowboys. I took the photographs and ran the reel-to-reel tape recorder. We camped half a dozen nights in places she did not really want to camp and we cooked camp stews on a wee stove together at the end of remarkable days adrift on scoria roads. That was almost forty years ago now, yet for both of us it remains the very center of our relations of mother and son, and whenever we need a dose of renewal in our friendship, we hearken back to those days of miracle and wonder.
The Pantheon and St. Peter's 2014 will be one of our dad-daughter centerpieces forever, I hope.
A week ago I had the honor of dining with Monsignor James Shea, the president of the University of Mary. He served me a simple dish of exquisite subtle pasta that he put together effortlessly while he offered wry advice about places to linger and places to eat in Rome. We are so fortunate to have Father Shea in our midst, for as long as we can keep him. His learning, his grace, his vision, his boyish life-affirming out-loud laugh, his belief in the spiritual traditions of Rome and the spiritual possibilities of the northern Great Plains, make this a better, richer place to live. He is also our premier guide to the Eternal City.
"Parte di ampio magnifico Porto." c. 1751. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
I'm writing this on the day after Christmas. My hands are dry and chapped from washing dishes and shoveling snow. Like you I am exhausted in that wonderful post-Christmas way, bleary, a little in awe of how much strain of activity goes into the buildup to Christmas morning, and how quickly all that frenzy is transformed into neat little stacks of gifts and a giant plastic bag of torn wrapping paper.
Without any spirit of exaggeration, I think I can report that I have loaded and unloaded the dishwasher 17 times in five days, done seven loads of laundry, shoveled four times, and run a dozen "last second" errands. My favorite was to the grocery store on Christmas Eve, where there were actual cart traffic jams as approximately 500 of my fellow Dakotans, some home for the holidays and therefore clueless about where to find the marshmallow crème, shoveled multiple cases of soda into their carts, some carts ranging the aisles in tandem at the hands of perky, demonic sisters-in-law. At one point I was reduced to telling a complete stranger: "Hey! No texting in the aisles. I'll run you down like a prairie dog on the highway." Fortunately, she smiled back rather than whap me with the 14-pound pork loin she was chucking into her cart. I had leisure to read Time Magazine's complete "Person of the Year" profile of Pope Francis in the checkout line. His attempts to preside over Catholic Christendom in a Christ-like way are raising some eyebrows.
My daughter requested a "live" Christmas tree this year, not the three-unit plastic tree that I usually manage to drag out from an obscure corner in the garage. We went Christmas tree shopping on the coldest day of the year: minus 23 and don't forget the windchill factor. Here are just a few highlights of a daylong saga: I install new battery in the Jeep; Jeep slips on ice and runs into curb; left front tire blows; we pony Jeep to nearby Best Buy parking lot; toy jack in Jeep (never before used) missing key part; father, wearing only a sports jacket, walks to Lowes to buy tools while daughter huddles in stricken Jeep reading magazine; father also buys mittens and a hat (idiot); first attempt to change tire fails owing to toy manufacturer's jack; good friend of father's walks across parking lot to smirk and commiserate and asks several dozen pointless and inaudible questions, before admitting that she has never changed a tire; father tells good friend to go jump in a lake (somewhat "softened" version of actual advice).
Once the tire was changed, we drove to Mandan to buy the world's greatest Christmas tree, which we tied to the roof of said Jeep and somehow managed to shove into the house, not without some frame damage. We spent the evening in a tangle of Christmas lights, which balled up more completely once we put our sap-encrusted hands on them. We made the Christmas tree star ourselves from foam board and the 24,300 bottles of tempera glitter paint in my daughter's craft drawers.
So far we have baked six fruitcakes, twelve batches of my mother's famous toffee; two batches of sugar cookies and one of chocolate meltaways; and two pies. On my repeated trips to the grocery store I have thrown embarrassing amounts of butter into my cart, again and again. On Christmas Eve we made perhaps the lamest batch of lefse (our first) in the history of Nordic culture. We will try again tonight.
The only calm in all this chaos was on Christmas Eve when my daughter offered to read the nativity story from the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke. We sat in the three best chairs in the living room with candles lit in every direction. She was wearing the new pink pajamas she had just opened—one of my mother's annual ritual gifts. I fetched up one of my Bibles, the New King James Version, and mother and I sat quietly as my only child read one of the most familiar of all stories in a voice that is two parts woman and yet still three parts a child. She did not stumble over "Zacharias."
Do you ever have one of those moments when you become aware that you are witnessing something you don't want to take for granted, don't ever want to forget, something you want to let get in deep, and so you try to become present, truly present, in a heightened way? "Some day I will look back on this moment and realize how magical it was, and how fleeting, and I will wish I could remember every detail—the quality of light, the sound of the music, the size of the Christmas tree, the color of the upholstery and the wrapping paper, the timbre of my child's voice…."
As I sat there I thought: for many years, my mother has been parked in a kind of timeless zone in which she is old without being elderly. She is healthy, autonomous, funny. She requires no special logistical arrangements. She drives herself to Bismarck and we do not fear for her (or others!) when she is on the road. At 82 she is still giving not needing. But the day is coming in the next decade when she will slip over some invisible line and become elderly. I won't mind making special arrangements when that moment comes, but it gives me the deepest pain to think that one of the most vigorous persons I have ever known cannot persist in this phase of her life indefinitely.
And I thought: my beloved daughter, heart of my heart, soul of my soul, now 19, is here tonight because this is where she wants to be, in that brief zone when she is making the transition from child to full adult. But the day is coming—and not far off—when she will announce to her parents that she is not coming home to the Great Plains for the holidays because she has a chance to study Orangutans in Malaysia between semesters, or that "Biff" has asked her to join him in Montreal this Christmas to meet his parents, or—alas—she is bringing "Biff" here and thinks perhaps we ought to discuss the sleeping arrangements in advance. Nooooooo.
Linger, my favorite women, please linger.
To my mother, whenever she does anything that smacks of "winding down," I say sternly, "Don't you grow old!" At which point she looks at me in a quizzical way, a little impressed perhaps that I am rooting for her so strenuously, but also as if to say, "You moron, do you think I want to grow old or that it makes much of a difference if I don't?" And to my daughter, whose life is going to be so much more bigger than mine, and who brings an earnestness to existence that I have never known, I want to quote Thoreau: "As long as possible live free and uncommitted."
As you can see, in my attempt to be fully present, I had slipped into this reverie instead. Such is the fallenness of man. And then I heard my daughter's voice again: "When they saw the Starre, they rejoyced with exceeding great joy" (Matthew 2:10).
A favorite verse, two celestial women in the candlelight, a cozy house with new tree smell, hot tea, and Santa on his way. Perfection.
See you in the new year.
My daughter is coming for Christmas. I have seen her less this year than ever before, because she is now a sophisticated college student in a faraway place. On the phone for the past couple of weeks, she has sounded more eager for Christmas than I can ever remember. Out here in the heartland, I am just ready to burst with anticipation. I had a hard time sleeping last night.