Thursday, January 3, 2013

Virago

Getting acquainted with Jon Meacham's biography of Thomas Jefferson, I admired the weight and the paper. Hefty and fragrant. Started with Notes on the Text, at which point Meacham writes that he tidied up Jefferson's correspondence for our reading. All the it's were replaced with the proper its, etc. In the introduction Meacham then didn't bother with primping a Jefferson household slave's description of his master. I needed to calm down. Pictures are good. No pictures of Jefferson's wife. Turns out there are no portraits of Martha existing. 10 years married, and 6 children later, she was dead. Jefferson is highly reported as mourning his diminutive and ill wife's death, but what did he do about keeping her healthy while she lived? Aargh. A plate of Elizabeth Merry, wife of British minister Anthony Merry has Jefferson describing her as a "virago," and references a social skirmish over protocol. Meacham's book is subtitled The Art of Power. What more do I need to know about power? That it is male, hierarchical, dominant and a pain in my ass for a lifetime. Words can soothe me, so I looked up virago. Once upon a time, it meant a heroic woman. And then the Latin Bible scholars got hold of it. Aeflic, and St. Jerome, followed by Merriam-Webster, the Oxford Dictionary and its online ilk. Wikipedia gives a more thorough etymology. Jefferson used the repulsive and first promulgated modern [14th c.] definition for virago:  a shrew, a loud and overbearing woman, and (adding insult to other cultures) a termagant. Over a dinner party? I don't want to read this book. I don't remember why I got it from the library. I just finished reading about Generals Grant and Sherman, and I'm male ego-ed out. I hope I'm done this lifetime with reading about gentile slaveholders in glowy prose. I'd rather perhaps read something at all about Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, who inherited her father's 100 slaves at his death, but didn't really own them because all property went to those wielding The Art of Power.

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