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Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 27, 2003

Four Books Offer Insight into Sage of Monticello

In recent years the reputation of Thomas Jefferson has suffered from revelations about his personal life and the seeming inconsistencies between his convictions and his actions.

However, Jefferson is unique among statesmen for combining a consistent application to art with a career in statecraft. It has become increasingly clear that his architectural achievements rank him among America's greatest architects and designers of interiors and gardens.The Newburgh Country Store, as part of this spring's Herb Festival, is including Jefferson's home, Monticello, in its American Gardens Tour. My wife, Pam, and I will be presenting a lecture and slide show on Jefferson's gardens, as well, at the Newburgh Public Library on Saturday.

Of the many titles on Jefferson's architecture available at the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, I have found these recent and classic titles particularly enlightening.

Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built by Marc Leepson (Free Press, 2001).

Were you aware that Monticello was the home of a Jewish family named Levy for more years than it was Jefferson's?

Jefferson died broke, and his daughter Martha was forced to put the home on the market. It was purchased by Uriah Levy, a six-time court-martialed commodore in the U.S. Navy, who was a hero of the War of 1812 and the person chiefly responsible for the navy ending the barbaric practice of flogging.

When Levy died, he tried to give Monticello to the government, but the government didn't want it then. During the Civil War Monti-cello was claimed by the Confederacy, and afterward it was purchased by one of Levy's heirs, Jefferson Monroe Levy.

Before and after Uriah Levy's ownership, Monticello almost died. It was horribly run-down, but Jefferson Levy restored it to its former glory. Jefferson Levy was a fascinating man who made and lost a fortune in real estate speculation and served three terms in Congress representing Tammany Hall in New York City.

However, Monticello was as much a monument to Uriah and Jefferson Levy as it was to Thomas Jefferson. During the Levy family's proprietorship, a determined woman by the name of Maud Littleton led a campaign for Monticello, the finest house in America, to become the property of all Americans.

Mr. Jefferson's University by Garry Wills (National Geographic, 2002).

Garry Wills, the distinguished winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for nonfiction, believes that the crowning achievement of Jefferson's architectural work is the University of Virginia.

Not only were his designs for the buildings magnificent, but his maneuverings to get Virginia to go along with his plan for creating a second state university (other than William and Mary, his alma mater) showed the highest degree of artistic and political skill.

This is the latest entry in National Geographic's new Directions series, which features the takes of prominent writers on their favorite travel destinations.

Jefferson's Monticello by William Howard Adams (Abbeville, 1983).

The novelist Louis Auchincloss has called this the best book about a great house he has ever seen. The text is readable and genuinely educational, and the photographs and illustrations are outstanding.

Adams was the organizer of the groundbreaking The Eye of Thomas Jefferson exhibit at the National Gallery in 1976.

The Garden and Farm Books by Thomas Jefferson (Fulcrum, 1987).

An edition of this classic work just was acquired by the library. Jefferson's farm books are scientific detailed journals of the gardener's side of his life. Along with his successes, Jefferson honestly notes his many failures. This edition includes letters to his friends and family on gardening.

All these books will deepen your appreciation of the artistic side of the enigmatic Sage of Monticello.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.