Sunday, October 11, 2009
Mr. Jefferson's University
76. Mr. Jefferson's University, by Garry Wills
There are certain writers who can write compellingly about any subject to which they turn a hand, who can, even if the subject is one in which you would ordinarily have no interest, make you sit up late to finish "just another page". Garry Wills is, for me, one of those writers. So to have him write a book about a favorite subject (architecture) and a favorite historical personage (Thomas Jefferson) is a real treat.
Jefferson and Wills have a lot in common, both being men who did not confine their interests and erudition to even a few subjects. In addition to his political interests, Jefferson was an inventor, a designer, an architect, and not in a dabbling, dilettantish way. One of his projects was the campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Wills' book describes the result in great detail (perhaps too great for some, but not for me!), accompanying the text with elevations, preliminary drawings and photographs, as he lays out the relationship of the buildings with each other and with the landscape, and, more important, the aesthetic behind the choices.
But the book is not merely about the buildings. It also is a history of the politics behind the founding of the school, of the difficulties of choosing and keeping faculty in those early years, both fascinating stories.
I find that now I would very much like to travel to Charlottesville, with this book in hand, to re-read it in situ, and see the place through Jefferson's eyes and mind.
[University of Virginia, J.Serz, 1856], Special Collections, University of Virginia Library