"I don't know what excuse I have now," said Dumas Malone when the praise finally stopped long enough for him to get a word in, "but I told my doctor he had to keep me alive long enough to finish Volume VI, and he said he'd do what he could.
"So I finished it, and then I told him he had to keep me alive till July 4, the publication date, so I could celebrate it, and he did that too. I don't know what excuse i have now." (Applause rang out in the Dome Room at the University of Virginia.)
"No doubt I shall think of something," Malone said, peering about the noble room designed by Thomas Jefferson with what little eyesight he has left at 89.
On the eve of the Glorious Fourth, 100 or so guests arrived to honor Malone on the completion of his monumental biography of Jefferson. He started on it -- asking advice from scholars -- in 1926, he signed the contract to write it in 1938, and the final volume was published over the weekend by the old Boston firm of Little, Brown and Company.
Malone has written more than a million words about Jefferson and thinks the biography is too long, but he's the chief complainer on that score. His publishers never asked him to shorten anything. In the first two volumes they sent down comments and suggestions, but the last four volumes they just sat there and waited for the author to do it his way, in his time.
"They knew what they had," said fellow historian Merrill D. Peterson, "and they were wise enough not to meddle."
Since Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and many of his papers are there, Malone has worked in recent years at the university library, and though his sight has failed he plodded along at two pages a day. Expert assistants (Steven H. Hockman and Katherine M. Sargeant, notably) saw to it that Malone was satisfied with the text, which was read back to him repeatedly after his first drafts and polished till it suited him.
The university itself gave the dinner, in the restored room that has meaning for Americans. The first dinner in that room was given in honor of Lafayette (Nov. 5, 1824) with Jefferson proposing a toast.
Nobody mentioned this at the Malone dinner but it was everybody's mind all the same.Jefferson was too feeble that day to address the 400 men gathered in the room (apparently it was a stag affair, but the ladies had been allowed to flutter their handkerchiefs on the terraces before dinner) but had it read.
Jefferson was at Lafayette's right, and as Jefferson's words were read, the French hero reached over and seized the Virginian's hand. Lafayette sobbed.
It was the last time Jefferson saw such a large gathering of his neighbors. Madison sat at Jefferson's right on that occasion and Monroe would have sat on Madison's right but at the last Monroe was unable to come.
A bugle sounded when Lafayette reached Jefferson's house, up on the little mountain above the university. Jefferson came out the door slowly to greet Lafayette, but seemed to gather strength as he advanced, tears in his eyes -- perhaps the only time he was seen to display such emotion in public.
Jefferson had sent a landau for Lafayette, drawn by four gray horses. The little procession was headed by a cavalry detachment, followed by a carriage packed with the arrangements committee, then Lafayette, followed by two carriages holding his party plus a quite neat wagon full of luggage. Behind that were the Albemarle Lafayette Guards in uniform followed by a body of Charlottsville citizens who would not have missed it for anything.
Malone's biography is stuffed with details of the sort, and the worst thing about it is that readers are almost certain to regale their own friends at ferocious length with gleanings from the harvest fields of literature, as you might say.
At the Malone dinner a man stood up to say this is the best biography of all those ever written about Jefferson. Another man said it was the best biography ever written by an American. If the dinner had lasted longer (it was a bit less than five hours) somebody would have said it was the best biography in the whole world.
Malone once observed that an author is the ultimate critic of such a work and is aware of defects that escape the reader and, of course, editors. He does not propose, however, to list all the shortcomings of the six volumes, beyond saying he wishes he could have conveyed better the relationship of Jefferson to his own age.
Among the toasts was one including Elisabeth Malone, the historian's wife.
Malone said he was aware the nuisance it is to a woman to be married to a writer hanging around the house, often preoccupied.
A speaker said Malone never trivialized Jefferson.
Ha, thought many of the guests, here it comes. But there was no direct allusion to recent books speculating (to use a polite word) about Jefferson's relationship with a quadroon slave said to be his mistress for 38 years.
Malone and the other serious scholars of Jefferson long ago examined the evidence and found none to support it. The late Fawn Brodie did much in her readable account to revive the charges first spread in 1802 by a man who had once fawned on Jefferson.
The so-called Charlottsville Establishment of Jefferson scholars has treated the revived charges temperately, and since Brodie's death earlier this year nobody has wished to seem to defame her by saying her approach to history was fabulous, slanted, unbalanced or contemptible.
Certainly nobody at the Malone dinner proposed to do more than allude vaguely to biographies other than Malone's.
He himself spoke like a young fellow of 50 and looked natty in his scarlet waistcoat beaneath his dinner jacket. It was raining but the roof did not leak (as it did for Jefferson who was forever having problems with his roofs).
Malone won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his first five volumes. In his long life he has edited the Dictionary of American Biography, directed the Harvard University Press and taught not only at Charlottesville but also at Yale and Columbia.
Some people have wondered if the virtual deification of Jefferson in the American mind is likely to last. Malone has said ""deification'' is not the right word, but that nothing is likely to dethrone Jefferson from his position as the most brilliant of American patriots unless totalitarian government some day succeeds among us.
Revered as Jefferson is, through the continent, it is certainly at Charlottesville that you hear most about him. You can hardly buy a can of beans or a gallon of gas without hearing about Jefferson, and it may have been President Taft who said that in Charlottesville everybody talks about Jefferson as if he were in the next room.
"The same room," Malone once observed, quietly.