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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Audiobook, by Joseph J. Ellis Extended Sample Click for printable size audiobook cover
Author: Joseph J. Ellis Narrator: Susan O’Malley Publisher: Random House Audio Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date: February 2021 ISBN: 9780593414613
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (6,008 ratings) (rate this audio book)
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For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight--and not only during his active political career. After 1809, his longed-for retirement was compromised by a steady stream of guests and tourists who made of his estate at Monticello a virtual hotel, as well as by more than one thousand letters per year, most from strangers, which he insisted on answering personally. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the luster of a national icon, which was polished off by his auspicious death (on July 4, 1896); and in the subsequent seventeen decades of his celebrity--now verging, thanks to virulent revisionists and television documentaries, on notoriety--has been inflated beyond recognition of the original person. For the historian Joseph J. Ellis, the experience of writing about Jefferson was "as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, has discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing." In American Sphinx, Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today "hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams." For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large--a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles. From Ellis we learn that Jefferson sang incessantly under his breath; that he delivered only two public speeches in eight years as president, while spending ten hours a day at his writing desk; that sometimes his political sensibilities collided with his domestic agenda, as when he ordered an expensive piano from London during a boycott (and pledged to "keep it in storage"). We see him relishing such projects as the nailery at Monticello that allowed him to interact with his slaves more palatably, as pseudo-employer to pseudo-employees. We grow convinced that he preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than in the actual bedchamber. We watch him exhibiting both great depth and great shallowness, combining massive learning with extraordinary naïveté, piercing insights with self-deception on the grandest scale. We understand why we should neither beatify him nor consign him to the rubbish heap of history, though we are by no means required to stop loving him. He is Thomas Jefferson, after all--our very own sphinx. Download and start listening now!

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  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Jessica | 2/20/2014

    " This book is a solid look at a man who had many facets. I appreciated seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly of a complex person. One downside to this book is 150 pages before the end Jefferson died and the author all the sudden went back...maybe more appropriate to put death at the end instead of suddenly going back. I've never been a Jefferson fan, but it's amazing how many of his flaws have been glossed over. Lately he has become the poster child of modern Republicanism and yet the man died deep in debt and several times required bail outs from friends/governments. He was a hypocrite in so many ways: against slavery, but he couldn't survive without his personal slaves and land-blasted Hamilton for the Treasury that allowed him to purchase what he considered his greatest accomplishment-Louisanna Purchase. Through out his Declaration of Independence and Constitution time he never once gave a public speech of where he stood, he only would work behind the scenes and with many pawns. The first true politician and lobbyist. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Anita | 2/3/2014

    " I like this author. Good book. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Laseghi2 | 1/19/2014

    " I am a big fan of Ellis' work as an historian and I always enjoy learning of the amalgam that was Thomas Jefferson. Well written. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Dave | 1/12/2014

    " Great read on someone who if he were alive today would have a profound impact on presidential politics. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Stephanie | 1/6/2014

    " Doesn't read as quickly as "John Adams" but an interesting take on the principles and contradictions of Jefferson. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Arjun | 1/2/2014

    " David McCullough wrote a better Jefferson biography and that was in John Adams. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Carol | 12/31/2013

    " This is a really interesting study of one of the most complicated presidents in our history. I found the book easy to read, hard to put down, and a fair analysis that presented all sides of Jefferson without glorifying him or condemning him either. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 John | 11/27/2013

    " A nice in depth historical view into the life of Thomas Jefferson. Identifies his strengths and weaknesses, portraying him in a more human sense as an amazing founding father. Joseph Ellis has an enjoyable writing style. Best biography I've ever read on Jefferson. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Brandon | 11/11/2013

    " I need to re-read this, I've forgotten most of it! "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 James | 10/26/2013

    " Excellent. Not a typical biography -- Ellis instead picks several key moments of Jefferson's career to show his character and how elusive Jefferson's philosophy is to define. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Ed | 10/25/2013

    " Likening Jefferson to a sphinx seems appropriate, especially after reading this. At times, his brilliance is astonishing, at other times the hypocrisy is almost overwhelming. You want to reach through, shake him and ask him what the (heck) he was thinking... "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Mel | 6/28/2013

    " An excellent biography of Jefferson. Read with Plain, Honest Men, and Founding Brothers. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 David | 6/12/2013

    " Not just a biography of Jefferson, but a psychological analysis of our third President, his strengths, weaknesses, and peculiarities. Must read for those interested in our Founders. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Jim | 2/10/2013

    " A truly great read that tells us the real story of Thomas Jefferson. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Kenny | 9/6/2012

    " "American Sphinx" about the psychology of Thomas Jefferson. I liked the description of his divided mind on slavery, his aloofness, sensitivity to criticism, superb writing abilities, and his preference for solitude over oration - all struck a chord "

  • 1 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 5 Jen | 9/1/2012

    " Drawn out and boring. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Nancy | 3/29/2012

    " OK, but not my favorite Ellis book. I'm more interested in Jefferson's "renaissance man" qualities and less in his duplicitous political character, which this skims. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 John | 3/23/2012

    " Ellis is a great historian, but not nearly as good of a writer as McCullough (or Goodwin)....this is an interesting, if mildly uncaptivating book about one truly mysterious personality. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Jonfaith | 2/8/2012

    " A provocative survey of an enlightenment think and statesman who could never outdistance his contradictions. My friend Mark Prather selected this for samizdat and a number of us read such and with a formality of discussion. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Lynda | 6/16/2011

    " Psychological biographies of the 17th and 18th C. suffer from a totally different mindset as that of the readers. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Sean | 4/13/2011

    " Excellent biography, very approachable/readable. Must read, if you're interested in or curious about Jefferson. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Cheri | 3/10/2011

    " Ellis has done it again. From the first few pages of the preface, he grabbed me. Love his work....but, I am a Jefferson fan. Can't wait to get into this one!!!! "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Eric | 2/25/2011

    " See my review on 'His Excellency', also by Ellis. I grew increasingly frustrated with Jefferson as I progressed through the book, however. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Stephanie | 2/10/2011

    " Doesn't read as quickly as "John Adams" but an interesting take on the principles and contradictions of Jefferson. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Patrick | 1/22/2011

    " Interesting bio on a very complex man. I highly recommend, but will likely read another bio on Jefferson that takes a deeper dive. This one takes the broad brush approach and, for example, leaves out his entire second Presidential term. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Louise | 12/28/2010

    " Read this book in 1999. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Kiddo | 12/9/2010

    " No one can survive this book without a crush on my boy, TJ. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Duncan | 11/8/2010

    " As I said before, I enjoy Ellis's work.
    "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Colleen | 10/29/2010

    " I'm not sure the author was fair to Jefferson, by apologizing for his seeming hypocrisy, he only serves to highlight it.
    An interesting psycholological study, more than a biography "

About the Author

Joseph J. Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. Educated at the College of William and Mary and Yale University, he served as a captain in the army and taught at West Point before coming to Mount Holyoke in 1972. He was dean of the faculty there for ten years. Among his previous books is Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. He lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and three sons.

About the Narrator

Susan O’Malley (a.k.a. Bernadette Dunne) is the winner of numerous AudioFile Earphones Awards and has twice been nominated for the prestigious Audie Award. She studied at the Royal National Theatre in London and the Studio Theater in Washington, DC, and has appeared at the Kennedy Center and off Broadway. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.