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Monticello reflected

There are few homes in the world that more exactly describe the minds and personalities of their owners than Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The most contradictory personality of America’s early years created for himself a building of contradictions. It is a tiny mansion; it is Spartanly Baroque; and it is a slave-run plantation that verily sings of the dignity of the free man. Jefferson, himself, recognized much of the tumult of his mind.

He was an uncomfortable cross between the 18th-century man of the enlightenment and the emerging 19th-century man of sentiment. So he built a measured, proportioned Palladian home and filled it with moose antlers.

There was in Jefferson both the love of order and reason and the love of wild nature. It is perhaps these warring sentiments that give his home such a special place in the American imagination.

US_Nickel_2013

His home, of course, is Monticello, a 5,000-acre estate near Charlottesville, Va. You probably have a picture of it in your pocket right now — on the back of a nickel. Take a look at it: a classic Greek portico, complete with Doric columns, under a Roman dome and extended on both sides by Renaissance windows. It has a refined symmetry as you see it from the front, or rather from its more familiar west front, for Jefferson gave it two fronts, one in the west, facing his lawn and flower garden, and a second in the east facing its carriage road. It was the east front that visitors first saw on arriving.

Either front is perfectly ordered.

But seen from either of its intervening sides, Monticello loses that symmetry and becomes oddly unbalanced. The famous dome is no longer in the center of the building but lopped over to the one side.

And it becomes apparent that the house, divided into thirds, has its middle third slipped like a rock fault, to the West. Like its owner, you look at it one way and you see one thing, but look at it another way and a second aspect, less easily understood, appears.

monticello side viewJefferson built his home on a mountaintop so he could see the Blue Ridge in the distance. He designed it combining his love of geometry and gadgetry with the French details he had seen as an emissary to France in the 1780s. In its combination of influences and the idiosyncratic overlay of Jefferson’s mind, Monticello may lay claim to being the first truly American house of any importance built in the newly created nation. It is part classical, part crackpot.

The classical side can be found in the columns and friezes; the crackpot in the way he used each of the classical orders in different rooms, here a Corinthian column, here an Ionic, so that you get an uplifting art-history education as you take the house tour.

There are other oddities. There are only two closets in the whole house: one in the guest bedroom and a second hidden in a second-story loft above his bedroom, where he stored his out-of-season clothes. That closet is open to three oblong ”portholes” that hang in the air above Jefferson’s bed. The bed, too, is odd. It is built into the wall between his bedroom and study, or ”cabinet,” as he called it.

Monticello Entrance HallHe loved gadgetry and built dumbwaiters into the molding of one of his fireplaces. He has a revolving-door Lazy Susan for delivering food to the dining room quietly and efficiently. There is a weather vane with an arrow that rotates on the ceiling of his porch and a seven-day clock that doesn’t quite fit into the space he wanted, so he had to cut holes in the floor to make room for the clock weights.

There are no windows in the third floor; all its illumination comes through skylights. And Jefferson hated to waste space with stairs, so he had them shunted off to the recesses of the house, and further saved space by making the stairways barely wide enough for one person to climb at a time. One has to wonder how he ever managed to get the mattresses up to the second-floor bedrooms. The narrow treads and high risers mean that modern-day visitors cannot visit the upstairs; they don’t meet code.

On the third floor, there are a few unheated bedrooms and the great octagonal Dome Room, which was a favorite inspiration to Jefferson but which proved so inconvenient it was relegated to storage.

One shouldn’t make too much of the bedrooms being unheated. Jefferson, in the Franklinesque practical half of his personality, rarely heated any room until the temperature was officially below the freezing point. ”Waste not, want not” — you can hear the line from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

But neither should one make too much of the oddity of the building. As with its creator, the building’s overwhelming impression is one of nobility, of something made with a higher purpose in mind. It is as if the house is the embodiment of the Spartan virtues necessary to create a new nation, a new political system, a new national sensibility out of whole cloth.

Jefferson wrote intensely if ambiguously of his own bifurcated personality in a famous love letter that he penned as a widower to the married Maria Cosway. It is a fierce debate, written in dialogue between his head and heart in 4,000 words and in which neither side can achieve victory.

But in that letter, written in France to the Italian wife of an English painter, he finds time to talk of his beloved American home. It is not head but heart that speaks:

”Dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we ride above the storms. How sublime snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet. And the glorious sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains and giving life to all nature.”

huck finn modern book cover

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. mark twain

In that book, nearly every theme that identifies our art as American is established and explored: migration, race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and the comfortable informality that marks us as a people.

It’s as if Huck Finn were the instruction manual for how to be American. In that, Twain is just as clearly American as Debussy is French or Basho is Japanese. john smith We often look to our art for clues to national identity. But although Twain gives us Americanness in concentrated form, most of the arts made on this continent, from Capt. John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624) and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, all the way up to this week’s latest rap song, partake in certain common traits.

What are they? First, we need to eliminate some of the things we like to think are particularly American, such as patriotism or respect for family. Every culture feels these qualities are particularly their own, but in fact, they are universal.

Even such negatives as bigotry and racism have their American coloration, but they are evils found in every culture.

It needs to be noted, too, that what we admire in ourselves is not necessarily admired elsewhere. Americans are direct, which others often see as rude. We are informal, which others translate as slobbishness. We are optimistic, which can be taken as arrogance. We believe in individualism, which others see as selfishness. But there are six things that we can see as particularly American: migration, individualism, optimism, religiosity, informality and expansiveness. source_28

Migration

The one thing all Americans share is that we are immigrants.

Even Native Americans, although they hate to think so, came here from somewhere else, whether it is across an Arctic land bridge or up through a sipapu.

It is the parent fact that gives birth to all our other traits. jumping a freight Even after our ancestors came here from far shores, we have never ceased from peregrinating. First we moved West, populating the great wilderness.

Now, we move away from home to college or career, and find our parents retired to Florida and our siblings spread across four time zones.

To Europeans or Asians whose families have lived in the same villages for centuries, we must seem utterly rootless.

So it can hardly be surprising that the central metaphor of Huck Finn is a journey: The book is many things, from its hero’s double negatives and “ain’ts” to his climactic choice to follow his instinct instead of his schooling about runaway slave Jim, but first and foremost, it’s a “road book,” marking the peripatetic nature of American life.

Much of our art reflects this continuous travel. From the moment we arrived on the Atlantic Coast we began moving west. As art, The Godfather speaks of the immigrant experience, but so does every B Western ever filmed.

All the other traits we think of as American ultimately owe their birth to this constant moving: It gives birth to our self-reliance, our willingness to risk tomorrow on faith, and our freedom from many of the cultural straitjackets found back in the Old Country. It’s all there in the art. All either necessary for immigration or fostered by it. high noon

Individualism

Make that “rugged individualism.”

We trust our own instincts, like Huck Finn, rather then the wisdom of the group. We are Mr. Smith in Washington, Gary Cooper at high noon, Ellen Ripley blasting aliens.

The single most potent distillation of this individualism can be found in John Wayne, love him or despise him. But Wayne didn’t spring up ex nihilo; rather, he grew from the soil: He was originally Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: self-reliant, unschooled but wise and practical, with an unshaken faith in his own code of behavior. He’s Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett saying, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead,” which is just a pop culture simplification of Henry Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Sometimes it’s shocking to realize how of a piece our cultural heritage is. davy crockett march

The flip side of individualism is our tendency to isolationism: “Good fences make good neighbors,” as Robert Frost ironically wrote. Going it alone is usually seen as a virtue.

The downside of this self-reliance is our anti-intellectualism. We trust our own ignorance more than someone else’s knowledge. This is nothing new: It’s why Andrew Jackson was elected president. It’s Huck Finn fearing to be “sivilized” by his Aunt Sally. It’s why one of the most powerful political factions of the 19th century was called the “Know-Nothings.”

It’s a trait of national identity that we should never misunderestimate. oklahoma!

Optimism

Against all reason and the evidence of history, Americans believe they can do anything. It is our “can-do” attitude, and you find it in the barking joy of Walt Whitman’s poetry and the songs of Oklahoma!Doris Day

To others in the world, this makes us look naive and foolish; fatalism is not part of our makeup.

Which is why America is home to pop psychology and Doris Day. As a corollary, for Americans, the future only holds a better world. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” Annie sings. “Make it new,” said poet Ezra Pound, and although he was speaking of literature, he could just as well have been speaking of Thomas Edison, the Chrysler Building or Elvis Presley.

Take what you’re given and do something new with it. Never accept the past as the final word. billy sunday preaching

Religion

Many peoples are religious, but in America, religion is something else.

From the utopian religious communities of the 19th century to today’s fundamentalism, there is a glint of zealotry in American spirituality. Elmer Gantry would not be thinkable in France.

We have gone through at least four “Great Awakenings,” in which we rediscover the old-time religion and the narrow virtues of belief. rev whitefield

It was, after all, religion that founded this country, whether it is Congregationalists in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland. Each of them came here for religious freedom, although they were perfectly willing to oppress any religion not their own.

The separation of church and state in our Constitution is there not because we were an agnostic nation, but because everyone was so nuts on the subject and we wanted to keep from each others’ throats.

You hear the religion in the symphonic music of Charles Ives and in Negro spirituals. It echoes in Moby-Dick, and even the window behind the dour couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. leaves of grass frontispiece

Informality

“I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass,” Whitman writes in a poem of expansive informality, turning his back on the formal expression of European art: No villanelles for Americans, no Rime Royal.

In Europe, you have Oedipus, in America, Stanley Kowalski.stanley kowalski Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in colloquial American English and even put a note about it at the beginning of the book. Take that, Henry James!

“Whatever is not of the street,” wrote novelist Henry Miller, “is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” And he wasn’t using the word as a compliment.

You can see it in the portrait of Whitman at the front of his book, Leaves of Grass: There he is, sleeves rolled back, collar unbuttoned, hips shifted comfortably, hat at a rakish angle. You could never imagine Tennyson like that. manifest destiny gast

Expansiveness

Everything in America is supersized, whether it’s fast food or our landscape.

In America, bigger is better: We drive SUVs and watch blockbuster movies. It’s a Texas mentality. Star Wars isn’t big enough; we need a director’s cut, added scenes, a DVD packed with extras. A movie isn’t a success unless it makes $200 million. And the TVs on which we watch those DVDs continue to grow; soon they’ll cover our living room walls. larry hagman with cash

One Marilyn Monroe isn’t enough; Warhol must print her by the dozens, just as Babe Ruth must eat hot dogs by the score.

The tall tale is our national mythology, from Paul Bunyan to Jim Carrey’s face.

Of course, how could it be otherwise with the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains? Our very landscape calls out for grandiosity and grandiloquence. Over the top is America’s starting line, and the next frontier is our constant goal.

OH, AND AMERICANS LOVE LISTS:

Most-American Americans

John_Wayne - overland stage raidersJohn Wayne: Love him or hate him, we can’t think of him as merely an actor. He has become an icon, the movie roles and the man bound into one, indivisible: the lone, laconic hero, man of action rather than words, graceful and bullying in turns.

4 more:

Louis Armstrong: American as soul.

Eleanor Roosevelt: American as do-gooder.

Babe Ruth: American as appetite.

Thomas Edison: American as inventor.

Most American Movies godfather

The Godfather Saga, Francis Ford Coppola, 1977: The conflated version of the first two Godfather films tells the immigrant experience writ large: family, business, love, loyalty, betrayal and the move west, told with the force and mythology of opera.

4 more:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Star Wars, George Lucas, 1977: Good vs. evil supersized.

Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick, 1939: History whitewashed.

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989: Race will not go away.

American Contributions to global culture constitution go

The Constitution: Our “governmental instruction manual” has become a model for the world, and its first 10 amendments have become the guiding principles of many an emerging nation. It’s more than merely political, it’s at the center of our culture, and the one thing the world really does want from us.

4 more:

Jazz: From which all popular music ultimately derives.

Hollywood: America’s secret plan for world domination.

Technology: The physical evidence of the can-do spirit.

Coca-Cola: Las aguas negras del imperialismo.

Most American Novels

huck finn book coverHuckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: The Great American Novel, filled with everything, good and bad, about ourselves: race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and our comfortable informality.

4 more:

On the Road, Jack Kerouac: An essential national theme takes center stage.

Beloved, Toni Morrison: The evils of slavery haunt even the freed.

The Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper: The invention of John Wayne.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Money, glamour, celebrity and loss.

Most American Plays angels in america

Angels in America, Tony Kushner: The hugely ambitious “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” takes on more American themes than anything since Huck Finn: politics, sex, generations, religious revelation, Reaganism, bigotry and forgiveness; so expansive a single night can’t hold it.

4 more:

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller: The underside of the American dream.

Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein: Gushy, American cornpone classic.

Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams: Torn T-shirts and sweaty thighs.

Fences, August Wilson: Black view from Pisgah.

American Classical-music compositions

ives album coverThree Places in New England, Charles Ives: The crusty New England composer reinvents classical music to make it more American: loud, brash, nostalgic and patriotic at turns, and finds its subject in landscape and history.

4 more:

Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin: Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Chopin and Carnegie Hall.

Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland: Shaker hymn goes mainstream.

Symphony No. 3, Roy Harris: The type of the American symphony.

New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak: Is the Most American Symphony written by a Czech?

American Architecture

monticello stampMonticello, Thomas Jefferson: Just as equivocal as its owner and designer, this icon from the back of the common nickel is both paean to Europe’s classical past and the American’s love of invention, gimmickry and nature: Palladian windows and a moose head.

4 more:

Chrysler Building: American industrial dynamism with grace.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland: Architecture as play-pretend.

Fenway Park: So cranky we actually love it.

Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright: Built over a waterfall like a diving board.

American Poems

Whitman at 50Song of Myself, Walt Whitman: The “good gray poet” could not have arisen anywhere else; he is completely American, from his deification of democracy to his catalogs of diversity to his “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

4 more:

Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Closest thing we have to a national epic poem.

Poems, Emily Dickenson: Nothing more American than her quirky New England eccentricity.

Howl, Allen Ginsberg: “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!”

Mending Wall, Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

American Visual arts

American gothicAmerican Gothic, Grant Wood: This iconic painting is more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa: encomium of hardcore American values or satire of Midwestern provincialism? Conservative or avant-garde? He’s not telling.

4 more:

Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley: Art ripped from the headlines, circa 1777.

Marilyn Monroe multiple, Andy Warhol: If one is good, a dozen must be better.

Dogs Playing Poker series, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge: Now, that’s OTT!

Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell: Turkey, potatoes and lots of corn.

American Popular music

shenandoahShenandoah: A folk song of undetermined origin, this is the quintessential song about migration and loss; with its odd strophic form and 19th-century sentiment, it borrows elements from Irish shanties and African-American blues.

4 more:

One O’Clock Jump: Count Basie and swing.

Born to Run: Rebels on wheels, a la the Boss.

Hound Dog: Elvis frees America all over again.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The suffering of a people, caught in the throat.