A Recollection Of A Christmas Past

We drove down to north London yesterday to visit relatives:

On the A1(M) on Sunday. No, I was NOT driving. [Photo by me, 2016.]
On the A1(M) on Sunday. No, I was NOT driving. [Photo by me, 2016.]

It being yet another Monday, it’s time to get back to work.

I hope you’ll excuse a Christmas recollection, but it’s that time of the year again. You’ll understand why in a moment. Let me explain…

Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, by Merrill Peterson, 1970. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, by Merrill Peterson, 1970. [Photo by me, 2016.]

That biography of Thomas Jefferson was a professor’s Christmas gift to me some 25 years ago. While at university on Long Island, I’d been his teaching assistant. I last saw him some years later in 2000 (when he also met my wife) shortly after he’d suffered a stroke. He died in 2002.

What prompted that gift was one late afternoon in the mid-1990s while I was grading papers in my office after I had become an instructor myself, he walked in and put down his briefcase after a meeting. He then sat across from me in the “student” chair. Jefferson came up between us due to his making a comment about something he had lectured about Jefferson earlier that day in his American government class.

We ended up drifting into a wide-ranging conversation about Jefferson’s life, travels and doings, including the debate on if after the death of his wife he’d had a long-term sexual relationship with an enslaved woman who was probably his wife’s unacknowledged half-sister. (We both believed the two centuries’ old “rumor” was probably true. I still remember noting to him that she probably reminded him of his dead wife. Newly invented DNA tests a few years later determined it was probably true.) I recall we must have chatted at least two hours. After a time everyone else in other offices around had gone home, no students were wandering in, the phones were no longer ringing, and we talked uninterrupted. (Those papers I’d been marking didn’t all get graded that afternoon.)

A few weeks later, just before Christmas, I walked in one morning and found that biography wrapped with a note from him and left on my desk.

It’s a 1970 book and has been superseded in scholarship in places by more recent works. It’s also flat-out biased in spots. (It’s clear, for instance, the author admires Jefferson and thinks little of Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson’s shortcomings are casually explained away, while Hamilton’s are not given an inch.) However, it is one of those books that laid the groundwork for all of the scholarship on Jefferson that has since followed.

I’ve struggled through it cover to cover more than once. It’s not light or entertaining reading. It’s an academic book, better than most, but still heavy and even dull in spots.

I pulled it off my bookshelf in the Catskills and hauled it back here to England for his excellent chapters on Jefferson’s travels and timeline in Europe. I’ve wondered from time to time in recent months what my late professor would think if he knew about what I have been up to my neck writing about during 2016. I’m sitting here working on Conventions, an historical fiction romance that includes Jefferson (in cameo) and is meant to be exciting, entertaining, and also perhaps “teach” a few things without readers quite realizing it.

He’d probably smile and say lots more people will read and enjoy my novel than anything he’d ever written. His books were academic efforts only. He laughed with me once about his dry, scholarly books that were gathering dust on library shelves.

He had also told me that he felt his students were his true legacy. I guess we are. Occasionally, a professor can change our lives and we don’t even know we’re being changed.

Have a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.

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