Book Review

Kaplan, Fred. His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer. New York: Harper-Collins, 2022.

Professor Emeritus of English Fred Kaplan asserts that scholars and the general public should read his Thomas Jefferson literary retrospective, which is distinct from the many political and character accounts of America’s most famous founding era writer. While an attention-grabbing and admirable goal, Professor Kaplan delivers a conventional chronological narrative of Jefferson’s life interspersed with descriptions of literary works and sample prose passages. In addition, he provides summary descriptions of Jefferson’s most noteworthy scholarly contributions and their impact on contemporaries and posterity. While highly valuable, some readers may be left wanting a more detailed analysis of Jefferson as a writer, why his compositions are so memorable, and what are his unique styles and techniques.

There are many strengths and insights in Kaplan’s well-written work, including descriptions of Jefferson’s most significant literary accomplishments and memorable passages. He asserts that Jefferson wrote his three essential compositions during a highly productive eleven-year Revolutionary War period. First, Kaplan pithily characterizes A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans in 1774 as a work of literature and political propaganda elegantly written in an aggressive, angry, and demanding tone. Its publication indelibly marked Jefferson as a committed revolutionary who could not turn back (103). Secondly, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was a powerful weapon of warfare supported by philosophy, clear argumentation, and clever propaganda. Lastly, the Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785 depicts Jefferson’s racist views and slavery hypocrisy generating the most controversy today and why Kaplan concludes that Jefferson is the most controversial founder (xi).

A question the former Queens College professor does not address is why Jefferson’s writing during the American Revolutionary War was so notable and enduring versus the lessor known compositions during the last forty years of his life. For example, Kaplan describes a literary genre of “pen portraits” in which Jefferson offers incisive and perceptive views of people important in his life. Jefferson wrote these mini-character assessments in France as the American Ambassador. Many pen portraits are embedded in correspondence, making a longitudinal study more difficult. In addition, Jefferson never consolidated the short biographies into a single volume, similar to his compilations in Notes on the State of Virginia. While the pen portraits are noteworthy but relatively obscure, Jefferson’s later scripts contain many quotes commonly recited today. For example, memorable Jeffersonian metaphors include comparing slavery to having a “wolf by the ear” (585) and the “desirability of the tree of liberty being refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots” (316).

Another strength of Kaplan’s monograph is making clear the relevance of Jefferson’s story for modern readers. Echoing familiar issues, Jefferson railed against an unelected, overreaching federal court system, the power of money to influence legislation, and the lack of a genuinely republican or democratic government. While society hotly debates these issues today, Kaplan concludes that “Jefferson embodies the paradox of an elitist who preached the populist rule on the assumption that the people would always elect people like him (xiv). Jefferson’s example is decidedly relevant today, which warrants people to read Kaplan’s book.

While contemporary relevance warrants readership, Kaplan could better communicate his messages by adding a conclusion chapter as he abruptly ends with the scion of Monticello’s death. A conclusion could summarize Jefferson’s literary style and techniques that would greatly benefit the reader. For example, Jefferson writes non-fiction without penning other literary genres such as poetry or fiction. His style is balancing communal wisdom and originality (21), creating passages of reveal and conceal (511-2), and penning concise prose written with precise logic and evidence (33). In addition, he was an economical, pithy writer (309). While Kaplan embeds these examples throughout the text, a literary biography would greatly benefit from a synopsis of Jefferson’s literary style and better deliver on Kaplan’s thesis that a literary account is a needed companion to the crowded field of Jefferson biographies.

Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia