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The Shipwreck Rose: Rad Trad

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 08:59

Thomas Jefferson's entrance hall floor is painted the same mid-green as the floor of my sun porch. How about that! I'm famous! I went down the rabbit hole, late at night after touring Monticello, in a hotel room in Georgetown, and read online that Jefferson got the idea to paint his floor green after a visit to the home of a depressive portrait artist from Rhode Island named Gilbert Stuart. (Stuart was the painter who did the image of George Washington, wearing a lace cravat and looking toothless, that you know from the one-dollar bill.) Jefferson, a very particular and specific person, referred in an 1805 letter to his entrance hall floor color as "grass-green," but I wouldn't call it that, exactly. If you peruse the "vintage color chart" on the website of the George Kirby Jr. Paint Co. of New Bedford, Mass. (since 1846), Jefferson's green — my green — looks most like #36, pea-green. I'd call it more of a moss. See? I'm just like Jefferson: finicky.

My own sun porch on Edwards Lane ended up this shade — the color of narcissus stalks? — because my great-grandfather, born 45 years after Jefferson died in bed on the Fourth of July, had a pail of leftover antifouling boat paint. So the story goes, anyway. This moss-pea-mid-narcissus green was popular on dory bottoms — a very hard enamel that remained on the sun porch for about 100 years, until four years ago, when I decided it was finally chipped and patchy enough that, despite the family sentimentality, it was time to strip it, match it, and repaint in a modern enamel less likely to give us all lead poisoning.

Nettie and I visited Monticello two weeks ago, as a stopover during her first tour of colleges, which brought us to North Carolina and Virginia on a beautiful spring-has-sprung road trip in a rented car. The daffodils and hyacinths were out in Chapel Hill and Charlottesville. We sang along together, attempting harmony, to a song list of 1970s AM radio hits: "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass and "I'd Love You to Want Me" by Lobo.

We drove in our weird little white Buick S.U.V. past Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the Wilderness Battlefield, me exclaiming in awestruck recognition — I was a history major — at the wheel and Nettie doing her best to demonstrate how mature she's become by not complaining that I was insisting on a stop at Monticello. 

Arriving early, before the first tour of the day, we hopped in a shuttle bus that took us up the mountain in a fog so dense you couldn't see your feet, much less the Blue Ridge, and followed a smiling tour guide — who said she was from the Rockies and that the Virginia mountains we couldn't see weren't real mountains anyway — under Jefferson's great entryway clock into the vestibule, and I kind of sort of burst into private tears behind my eyeglasses. Nettie didn't notice. Don't tell her. It was not just the beauty of Monticello, or the fact that I'd wanted to see it since I was a teenager myself, it was the shock of aesthetic recognition, a feeling of kinship, mingled with a stab of tragedy over what we've done with the American dream of freedom. How dark are our days? How low can we go?

The entrance hall at Monticello was decorated by Jefferson as an amateur mini-museum, with artifacts from Native American bands of the American West scattered around: a buffalo hide sent back from the Lewis and Clark expedition, bows and arrows, pipes. He called it the Indian Hall. White walls, green floor, American-historical knickknacks, a few black, spindle-backed chairs. I felt so at home.

I was probably 18 years old when, I remember, I sat in the crowded classroom of Eric Foner, the great American historian, uptown at Columbia in a course called the Radical Tradition in America — "Rad Trad" for short, which is funny, that the course was so important on campus that it had a nickname — and Foner asked us what we made of the contradiction of an enslaver like Jefferson being the same man who wrote the Constitution: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . ." Did Jefferson's opinions and legacy have any validity, given the reality of who the Virginian really was? 

This was before we had the word "canceled," but Foner was asking, in essence, if Jefferson should be canceled. This was a long time ago, the 1980s, and this was then an edgy question. 

My classmates definitely wanted to cancel Thomas Jefferson. I don't remember the exact words of their arguments, but the consensus was that you could only scorn a freedom declaration written by someone who cruelly bought and sold men, women, and children and made them toil in the Virginia heat while he sat at his mahogany tilt-top table and drank "cyder' from a monogrammed silver tumbler. Shooting my hand into the air to speak for the very first time at college, I voiced an unpopular opinion: We were judging Jefferson by the values of the 20th century, while he had no choice but to be bound by the values of the 18th. Just as we were bound by the values of our own time. Maybe in 200 years, I said, in 2186, our great-great-grandchildren would judge us just as harshly for tolerating the economic inequality of the 1980s that left men, women, and children sleeping under cardboard on sidewalks while Gordon Gekko ate sea-urchin ceviche at Montrachet, or whatever.

This isn't exactly what I was thinking as I went from the Indian Hall at Monticello through Jefferson's study, surprisingly small bedroom, parlor, and dining room (painted a shocking egg-yolk yellow). You grow older and your opinions shift a bit. If you're doing it right. They slide. I was thinking, with the acquired demi-wisdom of middle age, that we are all grievously flawed. All of us. Our faults aren't small blemishes or quirky adornments; they are deep and dark and heavy, and we all have at least a few. The Pope himself contains both good and evil. Thomas Jefferson. Elizabeth Warren. J.F.K. Billy Graham. J.K. Rowling. Kanye West. Thomas Jefferson is still my hero. He could build a clock that told you the days of the week, and a handwriting machine, and he could decorate a house in a style that looks chic 250 years later, and he could articulate the inalienable rights of mankind.

I took an iPhone photo of the gigantic trunk of a tulip tree in the front yard of Monticello, because I have a gigantic tulip tree in my own front yard. Then Nettie and I drove a winding road that took us up and over, up and over, a series of higher and higher wooded hills between Lynchburg and Lexington, Va., with forest on either side and trucks with wheels as big as our car carrying timber ahead and behind. The flag men on the side of the road in yellow vests doing road work, who stood there slowly waving signal flags, all seemed to have long, bushy, white beards and we started to joke that they were the ghosts of the Confederate dead. 

Nettie started counting not just the Confederate dead but Confederate flags on porches as we passed through the small, dissolute town of Glasgow, beside the James River. By the time we reached the gloriously picturesque campus of Washington and Lee University — established in 1749 and endowed by George Washington — in the crushingly quaint town of Lexington, where we counted five bakeries selling cupcakes, and settled into a luncheonette booth to eat a pimento grilled cheese, she had decided that this corner of Virginia had a few too many Confederates for her liking.

We drove north toward the capital, singing "The Air That I Breathe" by the Hollies.

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