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The Cult of Marie Kimball

Anna Berkes

Some weeks ago a book was returned to us, and its back cover caught my eye.  As it happens, the book itself, as well as its author, are well worth examination, even though they seem not to be as well known as they should be.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with her, Marie Goebel Kimball was Monticello's first curator, from 1944 until her death in 1955.  She did extensive research in Jefferson's papers, and wrote what was, until 2005, the only published work on Jefferson and food.  According to our files, it was actually Marie's discovery of Jefferson's architectural drawings, long forgotten, that her famous husband Fiske first wrote about in 1914 in Architectural Quarterly and subsequently became the Resident Expert on.

Many people are familiar with Dumas Malone's magisterial 6-volume biography of Jefferson; Marie also wrote a multi-volume examination of Jefferson, published between 1943 and 1950: three volumes, covering Jefferson's life through 1789, and the makings of a fourth volume now reside amongst Marie's papers at the University of Virginia.  Malone's work is invaluable, but Kimball's biography has its own rewards for readers.  Kimball's research is assiduously documented, for one thing.  The modern reader may pause at her constant references to century-old editions of Jefferson's papers, but it must be remembered that she worked in the days before even the first volume of the current Princeton series was published.  Her writing style is a pleasing combination of elegance and directness.  And she displays what I can only feebly describe as a "way of explaining things."  For example, in response to prior characterizations of Thomas Jefferson's father as an ignorant backwoodsman who married above himself and promptly dragged his well-born bride off to set up house in a lean-to in the middle of nowhere:

Jefferson's biographers have hitherto quite overlooked the fact that the family was one of substance and position in the seventeenth century, indeed, that they had intermarried with the Randolphs at an early period.  They have likewise failed to observe that the Randolphs and other great Virginia families, as well as the Jeffersons, participated in a gradual immigration upstream and westward from the Tidewater in search of virgin soil.  It was a normal procedure for the rich Virginia planter to move from his exhausted fields to his more fertile and more distant lands.  Thus Isham Randolph, son of William of Turkey Island and maternal grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, went from the Tidewater to Dungeness, his plantation some 35 miles above the falls of the James River.  His daughter Jane, who married Peter Jefferson, settled with her husband about the same number of miles to the west on the Rivanna, a tributary of the James.  These families necessarily at first lived in small outbuildings, or outchambers, as Jefferson was later to call them, until the great house could be built.  Even Jefferson did this, in 1772, when he brought his young wife to Monticello, the new house on his paternal acres.

Kimball also gives certain topics much more attentive treatment than other Jefferson scholars.  For example, she devotes an entire chapter, at the very beginning of the first volume of her biography of Jefferson, to his antecedents.  She also spends a whole chapter - some twenty pages - discussing Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson.  And in general, her treatment of Jefferson gives a sense of emotional depth without straying into overly romantic conjecture.

I've had conversations with several different people in the past few months, expressing our mutual admiration for Marie Kimball's work, along with our puzzlement that she seems not to be more well-known.  Thus I present to you: Marie Kimball.  She was cool.  You should read her stuff.  

And what about the book cover I mentioned above?  Well, here it is: the back cover of the first volume of Marie Kimball's biography of Jefferson, published in 1943, is an advertisement for war bonds.

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