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a popular but controversial biography (1974) by Newell G. Bringhurst
Newell G. Bringhurst, an Instructor of HIstory and Political Science at the college of the Sequoias in Visalia, California, worked for more than dozen years researching and writing his biography of Fawn Brodie.

Excerpted with permission from Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer's Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999, pp. 215-220).

In February 1974, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History appeared in bookstores. It was made available to members of the Book-of-the-Month Club in April as its main spring selection. From the onset, Brodie's biography enjoyed great commercial success. In early April the author received the good news that the book's first printing of 20,000 was oversubscribed; the book was well into a second printing, with a third ordered. By July sales of the biography had reached 56,000 and one month later had climbed to over 64,600. Beginning in late spring 1974, Thomas Jefferson was on the New York Times best-seller list for thirteen weeks. Within the first year of publication, the book made for its author some $200,000. Such overwhelming commercial success exceeded Brodie's wildest fantasies.

Part of the book's success was due to Norton's promotional efforts. In late April the publisher sent Brodie on a publicity trip to New York City and Washington, D.C., where she was interviewed by both the print and the electronic media. Feature articles appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Post. In New York City Brodie received national exposure through an interview on NBC's Today show. In Washington, Brodie's biography quickly became a topic of comment in elite social-literary circles. It was the focus on conversation at a birthday dinner party given for Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy. And a number of prominent Washingtonians, including David Brinkley and Art Buchwald, were all reportedly deeply engrossed in the biography.

Along with popularity came controversy, most evident in the book reviews. The New York Times gave the book two reviews, both in early April 1974 shortly after the book's publication. The first, by noted literary critic Alfred Kazin, was generally favorable, characterizing the biography as "fascinating and responsible . . . except for a few rhetorical exclamations over what Jefferson-on-the-couch really meant to say here and there in the letters." Less positive was in-house Times reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who described Brodie's line of reasoning as hard to follow, accusing her of groping for "extremely subtle evidence." He dismissed Brodie's biography as "speculations about Jefferson's private life." At the same time, however, the New York Times Book Review staff made Brodie's biography an "Editor's Choice," calling it "a fascinating, and generally convincing, speculative study focusing on Jefferson's inner life, especially his tragic irresolution about slavery." This latter endorsement doubtless helped propel the book onto the New York Times best-seller list.

Meanwhile, the noted novelist Larry McMurtry, reviewing Brodie's biography for the Washington Post, praised the author for the combination of boldness and tact with which she addressed the central issue of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings. By contrast, distinguished Cornell University historian Michael Kammen, also reviewing this work for the Washington Post, lambasted Brodie as little more than "a historical gossip incapable of distinguishing between cause and effect." Also extremely harsh was noted author and syndicated columnist Garry Wills who, in the New York Review of Books, assailed Brodie's scholarship. He noted that the author had "managed to write a long and complex study of Jefferson without displaying any acquaintance with eighteenth-century plantation conditions, political thought, literary conventions, or scientific categories--all of which concerned Jefferson. " Wills also criticized Brodie for consistently finding double meanings in colonial language and basing her arguments on the present usage of key words.

By contrast, other noted writers praised the biography. Ray Allen Billington, at that time considered the dean of western American historians, found Brodie's biography "thoroughly fascinating, opening vistas into Jefferson's life and thought that were fresh and exciting." Page Smith, himself a Bancroft Prize-winning biographer of John Adams, lauded Brodie for "an extraordinary human drama told with great insight, compassion and literary skill. "Justin Kaplan, the noted biographer of Mark Twain, praised Brodie for giving Thomas Jefferson a "human and recognizable dimension" through her "finely-shaded portrait." And Brodie's good friend, Wallace Stegner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and biographer, praised Brodie's Thomas Jefferson as "meticulous history . . . carefully researched, discriminating, and intuitive . . . [and] a powerful and touching portrait." Stegner went on to characterize Brodie's biography as a serious contender for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in biography, a remarkable statement given that his own recently published biography of Utah-born Bernard De Voto was itself being touted as a Pulitzer Prize contender.

Historians were more mixed in their reactions in reviewing the book in various professional journals. Lois W. Banner, in the American Historical Review, conceded Brodie's book to be "a tour de force in the imaginative reconstruction of the historical past," but Banner was critical of the "unrelenting rigor of Brodie's psychologizing" and her "questionable speculations." According to Paul F. Boller, writing in the Southwest Review, "Brodie undoubtedly overpsychologizes and occasionally she reads too much between lines and forgets that sometimes, with people, there is less (rather than more) there than meets the eye." But he also credited Brodie with "loosening up" our thinking about the third president by breathing "life and spirit" into a man who had heretofore appeared "cold, aloof, elusive, and impenetrable." Writing in the William and Mary Quarterly, Winthrop Jordan, whose own work on early American slavery and Thomas Jefferson, White over Black, had so influenced Brodie, was surprisingly negative; accusing the author of bad psychology and noting that on the question of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, the centerpiece of Brodie's work, he remained "persuaded that it does not much matter."

T. Harry Williams, himself a distinguished biographer, dismissed Brodie's book as "not biography as the art is understood by its better practitioners." Psychological tools, Williams observed, "can be useful to writers of biography and should be employed by those who cherish the art. They must, however, be used with some restraint and recognition of their limitations." Brodie, he concluded, had misused them, and in so doing, "badly set back the calling of psychobiography." Similarly, Bruce Mazlish, like Brodie a recognized psychobiographer, dubbed the book "a disappointment," one that came off as "flat and one-dimensional."

Reactions to Brodie's biography by the three most prominent historians in the Jefferson establishment--namely, Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, end Julian Boyd--were predictably negative. Although none formally reviewed the book, each reacted through other venues. Malone, after telling a newspaper interviewer that as a rule he did not discuss "other people's books on Thomas Jefferson," nevertheless described Brodie as a "determined woman [who] runs far beyond the evidence and carries psychological speculation to the point of absurdity. The resulting mishmash of fact and fiction, surmise and conjecture" he continued, was not history as he understood the term. He also dismissed Brodie's biography as "dirty graffiti" on the monument of Thomas Jefferson. In a similar vein, Merrill Peterson observed that "Brodie has her obsessive theory and she sends it tracking though the evidence, like a hound in pursuit of game . . . [but] in the end nothing is cornered and we are as remote from the truth as when we began. "Julian Boyd claimed that "among the whole chorus of adulatory critics of Mrs. Brodie's book not a single Jefferson scholar is to be found."

Despite such intense controversy, or more probably because of it, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History continued to sell well, going through eight printings by November 1974. A total of eighty thousand books were in print within the first year of publication.

Meanwhile, looking to further capitalize on the success of Thomas Jefferson, Brodie pursued the possibility of a movie or television series based on the book. She had actually begun contacting various individuals in the Los Angeles film community in July 1973, some six months before publication. She continued to pursue possible production of a movie or television series into 1974. It seemed a particularly timely project, given the approaching bicentennial. In February, through an agent, she sought to get NBC involved in financing a television series. She also hoped to get British Broadcasting Corporation people involved in the production, feeling that they would do a more faithful and skillful representation of Jefferson's life than American producers. The BBC, she noted, had "a feeling for history and tremendously talented actors." In pursuit of this goal, she traveled to London in April, where she personally met with a group of actors and directors. Director Richard Marquand expressed keen interest in the project. Concurrently, Lamont Johnson, Hollywood filmmaker, neighbor, and good friend of Brodie's, indicated his willingness to work with the BBC group--or independently, depending on financing.

Financing was, in fact, the critical issue. Brodie applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in April 1974. In her application, she noted that "the extraordinary drama in Jefferson's life, particularly as developed in my new biography, would make possible a dramatic and faithful portrayal of the man's life which would command a wide audience, not only in the bicentennial year, but for many years to come." Money was no small matter, since the estimated cost to produce each episode ranged from $200,000 to $300,000, placing the entire enterprise in the million-dollar range.

Despite such high production costs, NBC committed itself to a projected Jefferson television miniseries based on Brodie's biography. The network's involvement remained strong throughout 1974 and into 1975. They hoped to have production completed by 1976 in time for the bicentennial. Lamont Johnson, as designated producer, traveled to Virginia, to Monticello, to look into the use of Jefferson's home as a location for filming. But officials in charge at Monticello blocked all access upon learning that Brodie's biography was to be the basis for the screenplay. As a result, the entire production was hopelessly delayed, mired in controversy. When NBC withdrew all support, the project simply died.


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