And this doesn't even scratch the surface: Jefferson read constantly, copiously, in many languages. (He even designed a rotating bookstand that allowed him to consult five books at a time.) Naturally, as an Enlightenment philosophe in good standing, he knew French long before he was posted to France as America's ambassador. He also read Italian and Spanish, which he taught his daughters using "Don Quixote" as a textbook.
Like most Virginia planters, Jefferson studied Latin and Greek as a boy; unlike most, he actually learned them, and used them for the rest of his life. Studying the marginalia in Jefferson's law books, Mr. Hayes discovered apposite quotations from Herodotus and Euripides, in the original. Much more unusually, however, Jefferson was also a student of Anglo-Saxon. At a time when the language of "Beowulf" had not yet entered the college curriculum, Mr. Hayes writes, Jefferson's "sizable collection of Anglo-Saxon books included nearly all of the important studies of the language." He studied the Bible in polyglot editions that included Hebrew and Aramaic; he read the first translations of Indian and Persian literature, just then appearing in English. To amuse himself in retirement, Jefferson even bought Robert Morison's "Dialogues and Detached Sentences in the Chinese Language, With a Free and Verbal Translation in English."
All these languages gave Jefferson a wide field for reading, and, what he loved almost as much, for collecting. One of the chief pleasures of "The Road to Monticello" is Mr. Hayes's evocation of a world, almost unimaginable in the age of Amazon, when buying good books was an art in itself. ...
Thursday, July 03, 2008
THOMAS JEFFERSON'S LANGUAGE SKILLS are underlined in a new biography, The Road to Monticello, by Kevin Hayes. Adam Kirsh reviews it in the New York Sun: