The sage of West Falmouth
West Falmouth, Mass.
Dumas Malone's time machine has pine paneling, a well-used desk, comfortable couch, and bookcase full of histories from the time of Washington to Churchill. Over the years Mr. Malone has retreated to this compact study in his 200 -year-old Cape Cod farmhouse to reflect on the age of Jefferson, subject of his monumental six-volume biography, "Jefferson and His Time," begun in the 1940s and just completed.
The courtly and amiable historian has won many honors, including a Pulitzer Prize, for one of the foremost biographical undertakings in American letters. Looking back over the endeavor, Mr. Malone says, "It's been a great experience -- this journey I've made through history. . . . I've never traveled abroad in my life that I didn't gain a clearer perspective on my own country, and that's what you get when you go back and stury Jefferson."
In his world of time travel, Mr. Malone sometimes enjoys reflecting on how yesterday's leaders would fare today. For example, how would the author of the Declaration of Independence respond to contemporary America?
Looking at the White House over the last decade, the imperial style of the presidency would have dismayed Jefferson, says the tall, white-haired scholar. The third President was "very unceremonious, not dramatic at all. He thought just managing things was not to be compared with creative activity. He made no mention of his great executive office on his tombstone." He preferred to be remembered for writing the Declaration and the Virginia Statute of Religions Freedom, and for fouding the University of Virginia.
Regarding values, Mr. Malone feels Jefferson would be dismayed by the "commercialization" of sciety. "The society in which Jefferson lived was an economy of things rather than money," Mr. Malone continues, with his Southern drawl. "A sack of flour was something to be eaten -- not just something to be sold. We've gotten to the point where the dollar is really the measure of everything, the most obvious example being the world of sport.
"You have Bud Collins reporting a tennis match -- and we are very fond of Bud Collins and very fond of tennis -- and three or four times in the course of his reporting, he'll tell you how much money is involved. . . . In other words, the monetary concern has to win; the human consideration is secondary. It seems to me a fatal thing."
Now that he's completed the last of his six volumes on Jefferson, Mr. Malone has had some time to reflect on the third President's accomplishments. He sums up Jefferson's greatest legacy as faith in liberty, in the power of the mind, and in people.
The "main thing" Jefferson was concerned about, he notes, was freedom -- "freedom of every sort -- the maximum of freedom.[Jefferson] believed that if people were free, and their minds were free, and knowledge could be developed, you could do just about anything."
Whether that idea has really been tested is one of the questions Mr. Malone would like to ask Jefferson. "I'd say, 'Looky here at this enormous expansion of knowledge, and then look at the state of the world!'
"I think he'd say . . . that people just don't use their knowledge. Knowledge has been most effectively applied in the fields where freedom has been most complete." Technology has outpaced practically every other area because people have been at liberty to pursue it, he notes. "But in other fields that relate to human beings there by no means has been freedom," he adds, citing government, economics, and education.
Another question one might like to put Jefferson: How could a philosopher and legislator with his passionate belief in freedom own 200 slaves?
Uneasily, says Mr. Malone. In his latest volume, "The Sage of Monticello," he notes that Jefferson was one of the first Americans to present a plan for emancipation, but that Virginians, whose economy depended on servitude, were entirely uninterested. The only alternatives for an abolitionist in his time, writes Mr. Malone, were "exile, martyrdom, [or] quiescence." Jefferson chose silence, except on those rare occasions when his words would have an impact.
To steep himself thoroughly in the statesman's life and times, Mr. Malone pored over the Jefferson papers whenever he could take time out from his duties as history professor at the University of Virginia, at Yale, and at Columbia, or alternatively his work as editor of the "Dictionary of American Biography" and chief of the Harvard University Press. He aso was biographer-in-residence at Virginia after retiring from teaching there in 1962.
Mr. Malone and his family have summered for over 50 years in this handsome Cape Cod house, which belonged to the parents of his wife, Elizabeth Gifford Malone, to whom the latest volume is dedicated. Much of his writing was done in this small study, some of it after failing vision forced him to use a reading machine and tape recorder.
Asked whether Jefferson was too idealistic to be considered a success, Mr. Malone's answer illuminates his own philosophy, hinting perhaps at a commitment that helped him, against the odds of age, see a great life work through to its splendid conclusion:
"There was a lot of failure in his life. But the great thing is what he sought -- and that's true of everybody. I think that in this struggle in which we're all engaged . . . th only way you can win is in your own nature, in your own spirit."