For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight, even in his retirement. In his twilight years, Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death on July 4, 1826. In American Sphinx, Ellis sifts the facts from the legend to find the heart of the man who, at the grass roots, is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. A man who sang incessantly under his breath; who spent ten hours a day during his presidency at his writing desk; and who sometimes found his political sensibilities colliding with his domestic agenda; who exhibited great depth and great shallowness, combined massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, and should neither be beatified nor forgotten.
First of all, if you’re looking for a thorough biography of Thomas Jefferson, “American Sphinx” is not it. I read it as a supplement to a good Jefferson bio that I recently had finished. I don’t know about a sphinx, but Jefferson is certainly a bit of a sacred cow of American history and I’ve always been intrigued by what I’ve regarded as some eyebrow-raising aspects of his character. I had hoped that “American sphinx” would shed a little more light on that topic
Unfortunately, although there’s a lot of good information in this book, including some more extensive excerpts from Jeffersons’ correspondence with John Adams than I’ve seen before, I thought the book actually offered rather less insight on Jefferson than the bio I’d already read. I did find “American Sphinx” to be thoughtful and if anything, to err on the side of respectfulness - I’m not sure why anyone would take exception to anything in it.
The problem with “American Sphinx” is what isn’t there. This book was written in 1996 - just a few years before the DNA evidence that has established Jeffersons relationship with his wife's enslaved, mulatto half-sister as fact. At the time this book was written, the lack of hard evidence led the author to completely dismiss as rumor, that entire, long-running aspect of Jeffersons life. I do not believe that any attempt to discuss the character of Thomas Jefferson now can be complete without an honest examination of his personal life. The point is not iconoclasm, but historical truth. That there are no sacred cows and that even mere, flawed mortals are capable of great things is a truth worth taking to heart. “Character” can be a slippery and subjective thing to assess, maybe the best way to do so is through an unblinking examination of a persons life, personal and public, fact and perception, rather than selective analysis.
“American Sphinx” is too spotty to be either a good character analysis or a good biography.
I won’t say don’t read it, but if you choose to, know that you’re not getting a complete story - the elephant in the room of Jeffersons life is ignored. And for that reason, I think it should be a bargain bin selection as well.
Worst book ever
This book was just plain bad. Stick to better historians. Jefferson would have been disappointed someone printed this thing never mind listen to it.
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
Regret purchasing the audiobook. Susan O'Malley, the narrator, does a great disservice to Mr. Ellis by her amateurish, monotone and boring reading. However, if you have trouble sleeping you might try this audiobook if you can stand her punctuation free and emotionless narration.