[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-FedHist]: Sommer on Valsania, 'Jefferson's Body: A Corporeal Biography'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Apr 23 19:49:37 MDT 2018

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Mon, Apr 23, 2018 at 7:04 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-FedHist]: Sommer on Valsania, 'Jefferson's Body: A
Corporeal Biography'
To: H-REVIEW at lists.h-net.org

Maurizio Valsania.  Jefferson's Body: A Corporeal Biography.
Charlottesville  University of Virginia Press, 2017.  280 pp.  $35.00
(cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-3969-8.

Reviewed by Heather Sommer (Miami University of Ohio)
Published on H-FedHist (April, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Historians, students, and history buffs alike have long struggled to
make sense of Thomas Jefferson and his conflicting philosophies, with
egalitarian rhetoric clashing with patronizing sentiments toward
nonwhites and women. Despite frustrations and a diverse multitude of
heated opinions, we keep trying to untangle the Gordian knot that is
Jefferson himself, for he resonates with Americans up through this
day because his persona in many ways is an embodiment of the United
States. It is both this figurative and literal embodiment that
Maurizio Valsania takes as his focus in _Jefferson's Body: A
Corporeal Biography_, examining Jefferson and all his complications
through a somatic lens in an attempt to cut the knot. While this
nuanced approach may not entirely solve the puzzle of the third
president, Valsania uses corporeality to provide clarification to the

While the majority of Jefferson scholarship focuses on his intellect
and philosophy, _Jefferson's Body_ is devoted entirely to his
corporeal understandings of himself and others. Through the
reexamination of primary sources written by or about Jefferson,
Valsania reveals how Jefferson's consciousness, beliefs, and deepest
emptions were shaped by his corporeality and corporeal interactions,
and how he in turn sought to comprehend and master his own and
others' bodies in order to construct an ideal republican society. As
an astute observer and Enlightenment devotee, Jefferson recognized
the very paradoxes in his logic that twenty-first century critics
chastise him for, but saw them as unavoidable consequences of the
natural order. Jefferson's views of the body were ingrained in his
belief in natural simplicity, but this "natural state" or status
depended on an individual's sex and race. The author argues that
Jefferson's dialectal perspective or idiosyncrasies emerged from a
corporeal view of self, described in the appropriately titled first
section, "Self," and how he applied notions of the natural body to
others through both interaction and observation, detailed in the
again appropriately named second section, "Others." As a result of
this binary approach, the structure and content of the book reflect
and demystify Jefferson's dualities. Yet the tables are now turned;
rather than Jefferson observing corporeality, he is the one being
corporeally observed, providing both context and deeper insight into
eighteenth-century challenges and limitations that shaped his
sphinxlike attitudes.

In "Self", Valsania discusses how Jefferson sought to command his
mind and body, striking a balance between physical and mental
exertion in order to obtain optimal corporeal and intellectual
capacity. Jefferson looked to nature to find this equilibrium which
he used to define his personal, political, and philosophical ideals
as well as his own body, for he believed balance imperative for both
an individual and society to flourish. This moderation allowed
Jefferson to become corporeally innovative and progressive. He
snubbed the traditional stiff, militaristic, masculine European body,
whose artificiality failed to adapt to natural bodily needs. Instead,
he embraced natural simplicity of both the body and mind, achieved
through flexibility and fluidity. Through this private endeavor, he
came to understand republicanism as the ideal form of government, for
he saw its adaptability as a counter to the unnatural rigidity of
Europe's stagnant aristocratic societies that could not change to
meet the needs of the people. In addition, the ways in which he
moderated himself reflected how he wished to model the national
identity of the United States, and as a leading figure in the nascent
years of the nation, he consciously used his body and image to create
the political ideology of the early American republic. Jefferson
sought to advance civilization through his own personal progression
and the innovations of those like him who he believed were naturally
positioned to contribute to society: the virtuous, talented white
upper-class males who, by moderating first themselves and then the
body politic, could liberate society from "the strictures of history
and circumstance" (p. 100). Yet his own personal experiences and
demographics narrowed his views, and while he believed he and those
like him could master their corporeality and take charge of their
destinies, others could not do so in the same way given their natural
limitations or handicaps. The "other," therefore, had to be mastered
in order to be integrated into progressive civilization.

In "Others," Valsania explains how Jefferson's corporeal concepts led
him to envision and interact with Native Americans, African
Americans, and women, arguing that the key to grasping Jefferson's
alienation of these groups is not to be found in terms of power, but
in natural "science." Through his observations of these "others,"
Jefferson saw generalized physical and behavioral differences between
these groups as rooted in inborn features rather than the result of
subjugation. Like many other Enlightenment thinkers of the time,
Jefferson understood whiteness and maleness not as a strategy of
dominance but rather as the natural norm of humanity. Here lies the
Enlightenment paradox, for progress and absolute truths were both
present in nature but applied differently to various human
populations. While white males were naturally able to change their
circumstances and improve civilization, as history appeared to
demonstrate, the natures of others were predominantly static and
therefore not suited for pushing society forward. Jefferson's
interactions with others put natural theory to the test, and, due to
his privileged position within white Virginian plantation culture,
"proved" such notions of natural hierarchy. These ideas of
corporeality made Jefferson oblivious to factors restricting
populations. Although it is clear in the twenty-first century that
historical, cultural, and economic conditions led to such social
controls that created and limited these "othered" populations,
Jefferson's objective rationalism prevented him from making such
connections. For Jefferson, it was nature that created power dynamics
between populations and not power dynamics that created others'
perceived natures.

Relations to others also constructed Jefferson's ideas about his
personal self and Anglo-American culture. Valsania writes, "It is
perhaps no mystery that such an 'invention of the other' enhances an
individual's sense of possibility and control, while providing some
kind of reassurance about personal status or capabilities [and]
providing its inventor with an excuse for indulging in
self-aggrandizement" (p. 5). This is precisely what Jefferson did,
except he did not conceive of himself as an inventor of the natural
order, but the inventor of himself and of a better society. Jefferson
used his bodily self to demonstrate authority over the other through
distance, reservation, and hierarchical display rather than
"militaristic" physical coercion. In so doing, he sought to gradually
incorporate these groups into his ideal democratic society insofar as
their natures allowed and so long as their integration did not risk
civilization's progress and modernity. He treated each group
according to their observed state of nature: Indians as children,
Africans as inferior laborers, or women as subservient mothers.
Jefferson was well aware of the contributions women and African
slaves made to society through their work and thought such toils
their natural duty, which resulted in their purest state of
happiness. He believed the exertion of these groups allowed everyday
life to run smoothly, thereby giving white men the leisure to do
conceptual thinking that would advance civilization. At the same
time, Jefferson came to believe that Native Americans and blacks
could not peacefully coexist with white society, and sought to
distance them corporeally from both himself (by keeping slaves at a
distance) and the American population at large (by pushing natives
farther west), thus highlighting the limits to which the other could
be assimilated into his world.

Valsania's juxtaposition of Jefferson's corporeal views of himself to
others exposes the factors behind his notions of (in)equality rather
than rearticulates his shortcomings. The author situates Jefferson as
a unique product of his physical and intellectual environment,
defending him against presentism. "Historians and readers who think
that Jefferson simply mistreated members of [the other] (which he
certainly did), and that this must be the end of the story, miss an
essential thrust of Jefferson's progressive and liberating message"
(p. 100). Valsania argues that we cannot overlook Enlightenment
sensibility in regards to the way Jefferson conceptualized both
himself and others, for his progressive view of history worked in
tandem with categorization and natural hierarchy. Jefferson tried to
strike a balance (as he did in every aspect of life) between progress
and natural restrictions. While he sought to improve the lives of
many, he did not want to upset the social order in the process,
seeking to achieve progress through pragmatism while working within
the natural law. Instead of hurling our disappointments at Jefferson,
Valsania argues we must recognize his innovations and visions without
losing sight of his racial and gender attitudes that framed his
complexity of thought. Jefferson's gradualist approach laid
foundations for the future: people built on and expanded Jefferson's
vision of progressivism, even if it was limited in his time, in his
mind, and in his corporeal relations with others.

By defending Jefferson against presentism, it is tempting to assume
that Valsania falls into the scholarly trap in which ideas of nature
and progress constitute "free passes" for anything Enlightenment
thinkers failed to achieve or perceive. However, the author firmly
states that Jefferson was a willing participant in the brutal
institution of slavery and does not excuse any of his offenses,
stating that Jefferson "did not free himself from false natural
hierarchies. What is worse, he did not free those 'others' on whom
his own liberated identity depended for its whiteness, its maleness,
and its centrality to the notion of progress" (p. 106). Valsania,
much like Jefferson, seeks to strike a balance in discussing both the
progressive and restrictive aspects of Jefferson's corporeal
understandings, and tackling such dualities is perhaps this work's
greatest strength. Unlike unabashed Jefferson defenders, Valsania
refuses to sweep unsavory facts under the rug, yet unlike historical
revisionists, he does not see such matters as negating Jefferson's
ambitious Enlightenment projects. Hence Valsania deftly navigates
among multiple dualities, heated contemporary debates, and
Jefferson's own words. Notwithstanding others' attempts to place
Jefferson on the right or wrong side of history, Valsania recognizes
that Jefferson cannot be simplified into categories, and instead
seeks to expose the various complicated dimensions of his thoughts
and actions.

Differentiating between Jefferson's thoughts and actions, however, is
difficult. Although Jefferson could not envision ways to fully
incorporate others into society due to their nature, Valsania boldly
suggests that he would possibly have set his racist and misogynist
ideas aside had he known modern science and philosophy. This notion,
however, goes against renowned Jefferson scholar Annette
Gordon-Reed's conclusions that Jefferson treated others the way he
did not because he sincerely believed in their inferiority, but
because it suited his needs and the needs of his society. "White
supremacy does not demand deep conviction.... It finds its greatest
expression, and most devastating effect, in the determination to
state, live by, and act on the basis of ideas one knows are untrue
when doing so will yield important benefits and privileges that one
does not care to relinquish."[1] This self-interest is somewhat
watered down in Valsania's discussions. He clearly demonstrates that
genuine notions of nature and adaptability were central to
Jefferson's thought processes, but there may be more to be said about
social constructs than he alludes to. It is difficult to accept that
Jefferson's notions of corporeality led to such a profound
obliviousness to political, social, and economic constraints that
"othered" people. Personal and societal motivations would have likely
prevented Jefferson from eagerly embracing equal rights even if he
were presented with evidence countering his conceptions of racial

In a similar vein, Valsania mentions how Jefferson came to the
conclusion that blacks and whites should ultimately stop living
together in the same society, for he himself knew of the connections
that could be made between the races (positive and negative) and
tensions that inevitably arose. Again, this separation counters
Gordon-Reed's conclusions, for she says that while Jefferson
theorized that blacks and whites could not peacefully coexist and
feared racial intermixing would cause black to stain white, he
repeatedly proved that that was not the case through his relations
with the Hemings and Granger slave families. With regard to Sally
Hemings in particular, Jefferson was not concerned with defiling
himself with her "otherness" since he perceived her to embody an
ideal balance of white and black characteristics.[2] Valsania too
discusses this dimension between Hemings and Jefferson and draws on
Gordon-Reed's work for inspiration, but seems to falls short in his
larger application. While Gordon-Reed's arguments about the
relationships between Jefferson's self and others provides a fitting
conceptual framework for Valsania to work within, he could have more
closely examined what Jefferson said in comparison to what he
actually did in regards to corporeality. This other layer of duality
would have added rich discussion to the work.

Valsania concludes _Jefferson's Body_ by stating that the American
founder's "corporeal strategies and expedients ... are forever gone"
(pp. 195-196). By articulating the disconnect between Jefferson's
understandings of the body and our own, he once again urges readers
to appreciate Jefferson's radical innovations rather than dwell on
his limitations. He is right in a sense, for the days of racial
thinking embedded in natural hierarchies are gone from the modern
mainstream, yet he could have placed more emphasis on the
far-reaching impact of Jefferson's indiscretions. Valsania superbly
discusses the enduring influences of Jefferson's corporeal
"successes," particularly his bodily model of American republican
identity and political philosophy, yet he could have more deeply
examined Jefferson's corporeal "failures" and how such regrettable
experiences and notions also affect American history. Just as
Jefferson embodied republican nature and human equality, he also
embodied racial inequality. This painful and poignant legacy lives on
and has allowed Americans to ignore civil rights abuses that
undermine the democratic virtues they simultaneously embrace.[3]
Jefferson is alive and well within the modern American body politic,
for better or for worse, and today we must deal with the dualities
within the American condition begotten by the very republicanism
Jefferson formulated. Instead of putting the Jefferson enigma to
rest, Valsania brings to the fore another dimension of such
captivating and concerning contradictions in which we seek to
comprehend the successes and failures not only of Jefferson, but of
the United States.

Citation: Heather Sommer. Review of Valsania, Maurizio, _Jefferson's
Body: A Corporeal Biography_. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52061

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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