Rosemary Gould will be the discussion leader for Classical Pursuits’ spring trip, Founding Farmer; Thomas Jefferson at Home. Rosemary lives in Charlottesville and is eager to share it with Ann Kirkland and other inquiring minds who love great literature, architecture, and history.
When I first came to Charlottesville as a college student visiting a friend 20 years ago, I remember that it felt like a surprisingly strange place. The classical formality of Palladian architecture at the University of Virginia, dressed everywhere in strident red brick with white trim, was startling in and of itself. It was not an imitation of Oxford or Cambridge, unlike so many American universities. And there was something prim and yet creative about it.
I’d lived in the north all my life. This was clearly a different place. The straight lines of the lawn didn’t prevent the brick garden walls from curving sinuously along the back. The gardens contained a lush, almost tropical sort of greenery. It was a hot, humid summer and the Southern Magnolias were blooming. I was fascinated by their thick, glossy, dark green leaves and huge white flowers. I found, as I traveled more widely and eventually came to live here, that it is different from any other place, and I attribute that difference to the character of its most famous resident.
Thomas Jefferson founded the university and made the town of Charlottesville more than the tiny village it would otherwise have been. When you live here, you become conscious of this side of him — the architect, town planner, farmer, and environmentalist — more than any other. He was a man who shaped the world around him, and his home and his university can be studied as meaningful works of art, works intended to tell us something about how he understood human nature and individual responsibility in building society.
That’s what I hope to talk about with you. In our “texts”–both written and literal, brick and mortar—Jefferson sought to leave the world a testament of his beliefs about his life, his country, and what it means to be human. He is an inspiring figure to me, a man who, in spite of all his flaws, managed to live an extraordinary life in the face of great suffering. He is frequently touted as an intellectual giant, an extraordinary achiever in every field. But what I want to explore is Jefferson the artist: the struggling, sensual explorer who saw possibilities of all kinds in the simple clay under his feet.
I am also eager to share with you other, related aspects of my hometown of Charlottesville, as it is today. In a sense, this exploration may suggest how well Jefferson’s pioneering approaches are faring in a much changed world. I feel they are doing pretty well. Twenty years ago, Charlottesville seemed like a stodgy little college town, and when I visited Monticello I noticed that the Jefferson-adoring tour guides referred to the slaves as “servants,” and the mountaintop contained few traces of their presence or information about their lives. All that has changed. The city has grown and a kind of renaissance of culture and history has unfolded here. New archeological work has uncovered previously unknown free black communities from the antebellum period. Both Monticello and Montpelier have active digs right now, and the new information greatly enriches our understanding of the context in which Jefferson lived.
We will also learn a great deal about Jefferson’s pioneering work as a gardener and landscape artist. He saw landscape design as a true art form, one that ought to be added to the classical seven of the muses, and he practiced it with originality. He also cared deeply about what we call today “farm to table” cuisine, seeking to extend the growing season and bring as many new vegetable varieties to Virginia as he could. You can still see them growing in his garden. Perhaps only today can we fully appreciate this aspect of Jefferson’s genius, now that even fine restaurants boast their own gardens and “locavores” cook “slow food” in their kitchens. Colonial foodways still influence the chefs of Charlottesville, but fortunately the rich fare comes with a modern, elegant twist.
May is the perfect time to visit this lovely place. Ann and I request the pleasure of your company.
Founding Farmer: Thomas Jefferson at Home, May 1-6, 2011.