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Jefferson In Our Times: Friends, Family, Enemies

Brother to Dragons - Robert Penn Warren

Brother to Dragons (1953): Poet and native Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s nephews, Lilburne and Isham Lewis, who murdered an enslaved man on their family’s Kentucky plantation in 1811.  Written in verse, the story is recounted by the characters who meet “at an unspecified date and unspecified time to make sense of that action.”  “The philosophical core of the poem is concerned with the idealism of Thomas Jefferson…[who] is forced to re-examine his belief in the innate goodness and perfectibility of man and to fashion, on a broader and more realistic base, a new definition of human hope.”

Burr - Gore Vidal

Burr: A Novel (1973):  The first in Gore Vidal’s seven-novel Narratives of Empire series, this book presents Aaron Burr as the hero and Thomas Jefferson as the villain.  Told in the form of Burr’s memoirs as an old man, he recalls that Jefferson “was the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful…Jefferson not only had an opinion on everything but was driven to express it.  Indiscreet letters of his will one day delight and trouble unborn historians.”

My Thomas - Roberta Grimes

My Thomas (1993):  This novel by Roberta Grimes attempts to imagine one of the most mysterious figures of Jefferson’s life: his wife.  The story is presented as the diary of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, introduced by a daughter of Eston Hemings (son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson), who holds the diary in her possession.  It presents a more personal and emotional side of the ever-enigmatic Jefferson.

Scandalmonger - William Safire

Scandalmonger (2000): This novel by Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist and columnist William Safire tells the story of James Thomson Callender, a newspaper editor who gained notoriety when he publicized rumors of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson in 1802.  The book illuminates the interplay between politicians and media, and “articulates the Republic's early years by looking upward at our founding fathers, as it were, from the perspective of the ink-stained wretches who served them.” (New York Times)

America's First Daughter - Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

America’s First Daughter (2016): The first novel about Martha Jefferson Randolph written in 40 years, this book explores Thomas Jefferson as a father.  In the authors’ imagining of her life, Martha falls in love with William Short, her father’s personal secretary in France.


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