There's never been a shortage of books on our third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln might be more Hollywood-friendly, but it's the complicated, contradictory figure of Thomas Jefferson who's offering a literary lesson this fall.
Two new, widely hailed biographies — Jon Meacham's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" (Random House, $35) and Henry Wiencek's "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28) — remind us afresh how historians must take vastly disparate approaches to political biography, especially when the subject has been picked over like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Everyone is the sum of a million stories. The secret is figuring out which one to tell.
"The challenge for any book like this is to present the subject in a revealing light," Meacham said during an interview earlier this year at Book Expo America in New York. "My strong sense has been that Jefferson has been seen, particularly in the last 20 years, as this kind of airy philosopher. What I wanted was to figure out what he'd be like when he was doing what he did, which was hold office."
"The Art of Power" is a one-volume life story concerned chiefly with how Jefferson accumulated and exercised political capital. Meacham, who won a Pulitzer for 2008's "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," takes a time-tested approach to the consummate statesman who valued the success of the young country above all else. The book presents a life in full, explored through a specific conceptual prism (in this case, power). "The Art of Power" is an excellent biography — expansive, smart and accessible.
Where Meacham paints on a broad canvas, Henry Wiencek homes in on an angle that announces itself in the title of his book, which came out last month. With meticulous research, much of it previously unpublished, and concise prose, Wiencek calls into question the popular notion of Jefferson as a benevolent slave owner unable to get out from under the Peculiar Institution. (It should be noted that Meacham, though effusive in his praise of Jefferson, also hits him pretty hard on the slavery issue.)
"This is an aspect of Jefferson that has not been picked over," Wiencek said during an interview at the Texas Book Festival in Austin last month.
Wiencek observed that another recent high-profile book looked at Jefferson's slave and lover Sally Hemings: the Pulitzer-winning "The Hemingses of Monticello" by Annette Gordon Reed, published in 2009. "But if someone came to you and said, 'Well, how were the slaves treated at Monticello?' there's no book that really answers that question," he says. "I think I illuminated that."
Anyone who writes about a Founding Father or any other towering figure faces some key questions. What can you add to the conversation that hasn't already been said? How do you speak to the novice and the expert in the same voice?
For starters, you find and tell a great story. When Doris Kearns Goodwin started working on 2005's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," she knew there had already been thousands of Lincoln books published.
But she was also practiced at bringing a new twist to old subjects. She won a Pulitzer for 1994's "No Ordinary Time," which looks at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II. She considered doing something similar with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, but then realized Lincoln spent more time with his Cabinet than his wife. Her solution: write about his time with his Cabinet. The book became the source of the new Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln."
"The problem always is that the people I'm most interested in writing about are people that so many others have also written about," Goodwin said by phone. "They're the most fascinating and largest characters."
She faces the same challenge with Teddy Roosevelt. The 26th president was recently the subject of a massive three-volume biography by Edmund Morris. So she found a similar solution: Her next book, due out next fall, looks at Roosevelt's friendship and falling out with William Howard Taft and his cultivation of the muckraker journalists.
"Just as with Lincoln, I had to figure out some way of telling the story — not just a straight biography, because so many good works have been done," she said.
Regardless of the strategy a biographer employs, the goal is always the same: a good read. The quality biography's sense of personal intimacy feels more inviting than nonbiographical history. It invites us into a significant life (or lives) and insists that we stay awhile.
"I think there's a perennial fascination with great lives," Meacham says. "For people in an intensely frenetic time, it's a real commitment to read these books. Part of the covenant is that you have to do the best you can to reward readers for paying attention."