Thomas Jefferson Is My Home Boy (or, The Secret Literary Life of Charlottesville)

Oh sure, we had the best intentions when we headed to the Virginia Festival of the Book this past weekend. In its twelfth year, the festival is known for its wide variety of panels and unique pairings of topics and presenters. Poetry, fiction, history, self-help, self-published, publicists and the genre formerly known as comix swirl into a dizzying array of events each year in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia. A real opportunity for literary-minded folk to browse, mingle and come away with a new idea or two … so Levi and I were looking forward to a weekend of seeing what the festival had to offer this year and catching some of the panels on publishing and trends in what folks are reading today. Not only is Charlottesville home to the much-lauded Virginia Quarterly Review, it has its own reputation as a very literary town, with deep history and a rich selection of bookstores dotting its main streets. Even John Grisham has a home in the area … and William Faulkner once injured himself in Charlottesville, falling from a horse. What more can you ask for?

Unfortunately the very same characteristics that make Charlottesville an attractive and appropriate destination for a literary festival also made it difficult to limit our visit to the event itself. A short weekend didn’t really afford us much time to really experience both the festival, the history and the raw scenic beauty of the area. So we did the best we could and planned to hit as many of the panels on Saturday and also catch the Publishing Day and Vendors Book Fair. Due to a somewhat hard to follow schedule of events and scattered venues, we missed some of what we really wanted to experience, but by a stroke of luck we were able to catch fellow blogger Ron Hogan (of and mediabistro’s GalleyCat) as he filled in for M.J. Rose in the “Buzz Your Book” panel. It was interesting to see how the online factor has changed the nature of “buzz”, from even just a few years ago. Maybe a bit too much — as it seemed one panelist’s answer for every marketing dilemma was for an author to find a topic-specific listserv to post to. The panel took an interesting turn as audience members (mostly comprised of authors looking to promote, publish and sell their books) were randomly selected to “pitch” their books for the panel … and then receive critique and advice. This was actually less intense than the interlude described here, I’m sure the crowd was a bit more diverse as well. Even though we didn’t bring our books for the hot seat, we did manage to have time to say hi to Ron and offer a friendly face to an understandably bewildered Kevin McFadden, Associate Program Director of the festival.

We milled through the various vendor booths, mostly made up of small presses and self-published authors. Oh, and a huge line of people waiting to get an autograph from Michael Connelly. It was an interesting mix, but I think the main take away from it was that mystery and crime fiction are really, really popular. (Note to self: write crime novel.)

Although there was plenty more Festival of the Book fun to be had, we had more on our agenda and daylight was fading fast. We hightailed it out of there and headed over to the University of Virginia campus. Visiting the much esteemed and wonderfully quaint university, built by the one and only Thomas Jefferson, is like walking with one foot in history and one foot in the present time. As we would learn the next day during our visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson not only created and planned the university and its architecture, but hand selected the faculty and determined the course offerings. Jefferson’s other accomplishments aside, you can’t help but attribute the enduring legacy of acclaimed writers-in-residence at UVa to a man who once said, “I cannot live without books.”

During our walk through the campus, we also stopped by West Range no. 13 where Edgar Allan Poe lived when he was a student there in 1826. Thanks to the Raven Society, the room is glassed in and furnished with period items to recreate that special Poe atmosphere. This makes the third Poe site I’ve been able to visit in the last few years in this region, and it really is fascinating to find the wide range of his travels during trips of my own.

The next day we made our way to Monticello, the Virginia home of Jefferson. I’d been there before, but Levi, a first time visitor, couldn’t help but take a very careful look at the books in the library there, almost as if he were casing the joint. It’s very interesting to note that throughout the home, Jefferson historically had busts and portraits of writers and philosophers — as well as political allies and adversaries. You could definitely tell that literature and reading were integral to the man’s life, especially when you keep in mind that the sale of one incarnation of his book collection helped to establish our Library of Congress. Considering that Jefferson is probably one of the most famous authors in the world, having penned the Declaration of Independence, it’s no wonder after all that we ended our literary adventure overlooking the Virginian piedmont thinking about the impact a few written words can make.

11 Responses

  1. I’ve never visited a Poe
    I’ve never visited a Poe site

    … even though I grew up in Virginia. And I like Poe. Jefferson, too. And crime stories. FC, you should write a historical novel that involves Poe meeting Jefferson. It could have happened. Jefferson lived from 1743 – 1826, Poe from 1809 – 1849. So Poe would have been a young fellow. Wait a minute – maybe they did meet. Someone look into that! You know what would make a good pen name for a mystery/crime writer? Jefferson Poe.

    Hey, look at this! Jefferson, Poe, AND Coleridge, but not all in the same room…

  2. Awesome!Thanks Caryn for

    Thanks Caryn for filling us in!

    I had wanted desperately to go to the festival this year, but couldn’t make it. Can’t wait to dig into all the links you provided.

    Thanks again for helping all of us feel like we were there!

  3. Hi Bill — I find it hard to
    Hi Bill — I find it hard to believe you’ve never been to a Poe site — that needs to change. I may have to just steal your idea for the Jefferson Poe crime novel mystery series… Saw this and thought you’d find it interesting… Jefferson’s Bible

  4. That’s a couple of
    That’s a couple of fascinating links — I never knew that Jefferson tried to write his own version of the bible.

    You gotta be impressed by this guy — what an intellectual. Caryn, you didn’t mention that one of the independent authors we ran into at the book fair was selling a book claiming that Jefferson had Asperger’s syndrome. That theory doesn’t impress me too much, but the guy sure was different.

    Incidentally, Caryn, when you observed me “casing the joint” at Monticello I was really trying to see the titles, to gauge which authors Jefferson was most interested in. His collection was quite Voltaire-heavy, I observed.

  5. I think that was actually one
    I think that was actually one of the books we saw at one of the rare book stores, not an independent author at the festival. That was the book about Jefferson’s slave children. Also, while I know you were just cataloging the titles… I can also see why you get searched at the airport a lot… ahem.

  6. The Universes of BooksThanks
    The Universes of Books

    Thanks for the very interesting report and links, Caryn – this festival sounds like something I would have loved.

    With its variety of topics, events and presenters, it reminds me of the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, which I can’t wait to visit again in October (this year’s land of honour will be India, and a lot of very interesting authors are about to come).

    Books are not just isolated accumulations of words and pages, but belong to a multitude of intersecting universes (such as literature, marketing, aesthetics, media, language, creativity, economy, philosophy, bumblebee, etc.), and to bring these universes together and explore their potentials is a great adventure that these kinds of events allow to experience.

    I definitely think the world needs more of this!

  7. TimingAbout a week ago I

    About a week ago I started in on “American Sphinx”, which chronicles Jefferson’s life before and after the Revolutionary War. I always keep notes as I read, so maybe I’ll post them when I’m finished. One interesting thing thus far: Jefferson hated public speaking/orating (which was key to success in the political arena) and never “stood up” before the Congress. He preferred to write his ideas out, alone, and have someone else argue on his behalf (usually Adams), while he sat by passively.

  8. Thanks Anemone, I hope you’ll
    Thanks Anemone, I hope you’ll write up another account for us this year — I enjoyed hearing about the event and checking out your pictures. I imagine the India angle will be doubly fascinating for everyone.

  9. Hey Kevin — well you know,
    Hey Kevin — well you know, I’m a bit psychic and just wanted to draw you out with the Jefferson bait. I’ve not read that book, but it sounds great — I hope you will post your thoughts and a recap of it when you’re finished.

  10. Anytime, Steve — it’s what I
    Anytime, Steve — it’s what I do. I think it’s a good experience to try to attend one or two events like this every now and then to see what everyone’s up to — and to gauge your own expectations accordingly.

  11. If no unforeseen events
    If no unforeseen events prevent me from going there, I’ll write a report about it again!

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