The thing I really enjoy about biographies, when they’re well-written, is the context the author provides to the life. Dates, events, accomplishments…these things we can get on Wikipedia.
What Jon Meacham does, quite effectively, is wrap the life of Thomas Jefferson around his era, presenting him as a product–not just of his times–but also of his family and his ideals. And there’s the fine line, always present when a biographer steps beyond history, archives, hard evidence, or commentary given by contemporaries of the subject: that fine line is between what was plausible and possible, and what is hollow conjecture.
I remember the frustration of reading a very thick biography of Leonardo da Vinci years ago. Because of the limited resources and information available on the great man, the author continuously feel back on ‘what could have happened was’ or ‘what Leonardo could have been thinking was…’ While these informed hypotheses are interesting up to a point, they soon lose their mystery for a meat-and-potatoes reader like myself.
Meacham avoids this pitfall, engaging with facts and only occasionally putting forth a limited possibility, and only when it’s necessary to understand a moment in Jefferson’s life, and only when it’s supported by considerable evidence.
This, in addition to the author’s fluid, engaging style, makes for a fine read. Please share what’s on your nightstand, if you wish…here’s to a great 2019.