I left New York on Tuesday, spent the night in Baltimore with my lovely roommate from grad school (and her amazing pup), and arrived at Monticello Wednesday morning. For the first time in my life, I was early! I got to stop at Shenandoah Joe's for coffee, which was fabulous.
I rolled up to the front of the place singing Hamilton at the top of my lungs, and I imagined somewhere that Jefferson was flipping me off from beyond the grave. New York had arrived.
"I am not throwing away my shot. Ay yo, I'm just like my country - I'm young, scrappy, and hungry,
and I'm not throwing away my shot." -Alexander Hamilton by way of Lin Manuel Miranda
I arrived at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and met with some of the friendliest human beings on the planet. They told me how excited they were to have me, how cool they thought my project was (please forgive my weeping), and then apologized for their enthusiasm. I think I must have been dumb struck by how cool this all was, because never before in my life has anybody apologized to ME for THEIR enthusiasm. Not even one time.
Then they showed me to my COTTAGE. I get a cottage. I could throw something and hit the ICJS, no joke. I don't feel inclined to, but I think the frame of reference is important.
I also get an office in the library, which I think may be among the coolest things that has ever happened in my life. By this point, I had had more coffee than was probably a good idea, and my bones were vibrating, and I got to see the inside of a gorgeous building that I get to basically live in for the next month. So I set up my computer and my drawing tablet, and yeah, it was off to a good start.
Then we got a tour of the library and its resources.
With my fellow's badge, I can be in the library from 7 AM - 9 PM, when it's only open to the public from 9 - 5. ACCESS TO AN EMPTY LIBRARY? OH, OK. This day is already amazing, but there's the tiniest part of me that keeps assuming I'll wake up in a few minutes.
The library gatekeeper is funny, and she showed me where the children's books and graphic novel - type books are. She said some of them are awesome, some of them are ... less awesome. They don't get a lot of historians writing these kinds of things, so she thought my project was great. Again, I could have hugged her right there, but we'd just met so I settled for an awkward too-grateful smile. This made me wonder a lot about audience for my project. Children's book wasn't a goal, but I think having visual references looking at some of the same material could be very helpful. So I checked it out.
I was not disappointed. Among other highlights, they had little Beanie baby style stuffed Jefferson and Adams? Hilarious.
I picked up a couple of books and got to work. (IN MY OFFICE.)
One that I gravitated towards immediately was Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman. It has these beautifully expressive illustrations, great vibrant colors, and I was super intrigued. And then I started reading it.
A little more than halfway through, the book gets to slavery on the plantation at Monticello. For a kids book, this is really important, but also should be approached delicately, I think.
The photographed page reads "Jefferson would visit the kitchen each week and wind the grandfather clock. He probably said a few kind words to the cooks. / In the fancy dining room, they had the best of everything. Even vanilla ice cream!! And so many kinds of pudding - apple, bread, huckleberry, lemon, macaroni, orange, plum, quince and tapioca pudding, all produced by the endless labor of slaves. Jefferson may have been a kind master, but it was still a horror."
I think my forehead will have visible abs by the end of this month, with the workout my eyebrows are getting.
So the book is sort of taking a roundabout approach to touring the house (almost), and then... a few kind words to the cook while making people work endlessly makes TJ a kind master. Because there was pudding! And ice cream! While I was kind of fascinated to think of the food they would have been eating in the early 19th century in rural Virginia, my entire face hurts. The rest of the book followed suit.
I read through the rest of it with equal parts horror and fascination before coming across the last page. And I think this is really important:
"If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello."
I sat there for a minute. Yes. Yes to this. And so here I am, and here I go.