Nice little article about the origins of Rob McDonald’s interest in Poplar Forest.
Just when you thought it would be a crime against history to publish yet another book on the much-examined Thomas Jefferson, along comes Virginia Military Institute professor Rob McDonald with a new angle.
You’ve heard and read, bordering on brain freeze, about President Thomas Jefferson, Governor Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson the statesman, Thomas Jefferson the slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson the inventor and Thomas Jefferson’s views on the separation of church and state.
McDonald, who teaches English to VMI cadets, is approaching the great man from a different direction — Jefferson the writer. That led him to Poplar Forest with a camera as well as a notebook, and the result was the simply titled “Poplar Forest,” a collection of photographs framed by a short text written by McDonald and a poem by Sam Witt.
On April 24, the same day as “Conversations with Thomas Jefferson,” McDonald will be at Poplar Forest to sign prints of his photographs and take advance orders for the book. He will then return for a book signing on May 15.
Jefferson’s Bedford County retreat will be open to visitors for the season beginning today.
“Jefferson was a wonderful writer,” said McDonald. “He’s so measured, and he had such a natural form.”
And with McDonald, what writers wrote shares equal time in his investigations with where they wrote it.
“I was working on a book about the places where Southern writers found their personal landscape and private space,” he said. “Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner were two of the subjects, and then I thought about Jefferson.
“I know you don’t usually think about Jefferson as a writer, but he was a fine one. And since he wrote most of ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ at Poplar Forest, where he went to get away from all the activity at Monticello, I decided to go there. When I did, I was hooked.”
A native South Carolinian, McDonald had never before visited Jefferson’s Bedford County retreat.
“Walking the grounds, I could really imagine what it must have been like for Jefferson,” he said. “I even liked the fact that the house had no furniture. It took away the distractions, and it looked as if someone was getting ready to move in there.
“At Poplar Forest, Jefferson could be close to a hermit. He did a lot of his thinking walking those fields. I went back three times.”
Eventually, McDonald decided to separate Jefferson from the other Southern writers in his book and approach Poplar Forest as a separate entity. His photographs are more atmospheric than historic, an attempt to capture the mood and feel of the place.
“One reviewer said they were ‘ambiguous,’” McDonald said. “I took that as a compliment.”
The book was published by Horse & Buggy Press of Durham, N.C., which specializes in high-end books.
As owner Dave Wofford says on his Web site: “I design books … that have won awards for both their design and content. These top-shelf titles — housed in special collections across the globe, including the rare-book rooms of the New York Public Library, the British Library, the Library of Paris, the Vatican, and the Penland School of Crafts Coffeehouse — are not mere fetishized objects for collectors and vitrine cases. These collaborations also happily reside in the home libraries of thousands of readers, are shared between friends, are used in college literature programs, and donated to municipal libraries.”
“Each book will have a number attached to it, and will be a limited edition,” McDonald added.
After today, Poplar Forest will be open six days a week, Wednesday through Monday, until Nov. 30. Guided tours of Jefferson’s octagonal house begin at 10 a.m. and run every half hour with the last tour beginning at 4 p.m. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and active military, $6 for ages 12-18, $2 for ages 6-11 and free for ages 5 and younger.