Seeing Jefferson Anew: A Review of Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography, by Maurizio Valsania

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Maurizio Valsania, Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography

University of Virginia Press, 2017.

265 pages, endnotes, bibliography, index.

 

After reading about Thomas Jefferson for over thirty years, I was beginning to wonder if anything new could be said about the man from Monticello.  That query has been answered in the affirmative by University of Torino, Italy, Professor Maurizio Valsania, who gives us an earthy and unique biography of Jefferson focused on his body.

Valsania’s fascinating work is an interdisciplinary study which borrows from physical and cultural anthropology, anatomy and psychology, which measures Jefferson’s corporality as a way of understanding his life.  Broken into two main parts: the self and the other, the author examines how Jefferson was constructed, biologically, and how he constructed  himself before moving on to consider how the sage of Monticello used these to make sense of the other – most notably Native Americans, African Americans and women.

In Valsania’s book we find a “mild, harmonious, flexible, engaging, maybe also “feminine” [man;]…Jefferson had an unconventional corporeality.”[i]  Described as refined, retiring, soft and mild mannered, Jefferson exhibited a natural simplicity.  But, as Valsania explained, “Jefferson, like many others who sought to perform “simplicity,” relied heavily on the worship of naturalness.  Impossible to hide is the fact that “natural” in the period could simultaneously mean something good and something bad; nature had to be emulated and defeated as the same time.”[ii]

Jefferson’s skin, hair, and posture are all examined as part of a “body system,” as well as his fashion.  In this I found the author’s argument compelling.  The Virginian has been described by many as inattentive or negligent in dress.  Supreme Court justice Joseph Story wrote after meeting Jefferson that he could not help but notice “the negligence of his dress.”  According to Story, Jefferson “received us in his slippers, and wore old fashioned clothes, which were not in the nicest order, or of the most elegant kind.”[iii] During his years in public office, a number of foreign diplomats took offense to Jefferson’s informal dress and interpreted it as a snub, which suggests deliberate behavior.  Valsania agrees.  A very methodical and deliberate man, Jefferson was quite aware of his appearance and how it would be interpreted by others.  According to the author, Jefferson’s style of dress was the product of his desire “to offset the spell of antirepublicanism by reenacting homespun virtue and American simplicity.”[iv] In short, “Jefferson’s corporeality…was intended to support an economic, educational, and political vision.”[v]

The last years of Jefferson’s life were, from a physical point of view, painful and featured limits on his freedom.  He was wracked with rheumatism – unable to walk far and haunted by an old injury to his wrist.  But I was unaware that what was truly disturbing to Jefferson’s sense of agency, and threatened to embarrass him at any moment, was his struggle against chronic diarrhea.  According to Valsania, Jefferson’s “body became foreign both because it maintained control over the frequency and intensity of the release of material…but also because it was violated.”[vi]  Sadly, the octogenarian former president was forced to wear a catheter at times in order to empty his bladder.  Each time it was employed, bacteria was introduced into the body contributing to Jefferson’s decline.

In his examination of Jefferson and others, Valsania has to contend with recent scholarship, much of which has “proclaimed that this idol should be removed from its pedestal.”[vii] But he contends that these scholars “miss an essential thrust of Jefferson’s progressive and liberating message.”[viii] As a man deeply engaged and influenced by Enlightenment liberal political theory, the Virginian’s efforts to overcome the status quo and effect liberation, in all its forms, should not be overlooked.  Jefferson advocated “a stadial theory of the progress of civilization,” Valsania wrote, “This means that Jefferson preferred to envision and implement only those ideas, measures, and policies that he believed were appropriate to the historical moment.”[ix]

Valsania cautions us to employ cultural relativism when we consider Jefferson’s flaws.  “When we put ourselves in the shoes of the real man, and look ahead the way he did, we cannot overlook his many achievements and real efforts.”[x]  Jefferson does not live up to our expectations and our values today.  From that vantage point Jefferson was racist and misogynist without a doubt, but placed in the context of his time and place he was liberal, tolerant, and earnest in the desire to “facilitate democratic processes leading to the improvement of the human condition.”[xi]

This delightful book is deep, engaging, and very thought provoking.  It is not, however, an accessible read for the general reader.  The language, jargon, and theory assume the reader is at least college educated and perhaps familiar with anthropology.

Valsania’s book is certainly required reading for the Jefferson aficionado.  The perspective is unique and contributes significantly to our understanding of the third president.  The approach promises to open a new field of study with much potential.  I would love to see a similar corporeal biography of Lincoln, Franklin and many others.

Scholars hope to make their mark and make a significant contribution to their field.  Valsania has done this with aplomb.

 

[i] Maurizio Valsania, Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017), 11.

[ii] Ibid, 25.

[iii] Ibid, 48-49.

[iv] Ibid, 50.

[v] Ibid, 53.

[vi] Ibid, 96.

[vii] Ibid, 99.

[viii] Ibid, 100.

[ix] Ibid, 100-101.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid, 102.

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About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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