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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, July 31, 1975. Interview A-0311-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Brodie's and Vidal's scholarship besmirched Thomas Jefferson's political legacy

Dabney dismisses Fawn Brodie's and Gore Vidal's books as distorting the true stature of the founding leaders of America. Brodie asserted that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings. Interestingly, Dabney penned a rebuttal to Brodie's account in the early 1990s, distrusting Jefferson's interracial relationship.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, July 31, 1975. Interview A-0311-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Not long ago, Mr. Dabney, you made a formal speech at the College of William and Mary in which you attacked Fawn Brodie's work on Jefferson and Gore Vidal's historical fiction on Burr and in a sense, defended a different notion of the Founding Fathers. Would you comment on how you came to give the speech and what you hoped to do in the speech and then the reaction to the speech?
Well, when I was asked to make it, I couldn't think of what I was going to say and I wracked my brain for months. Finally, it popped into my mind that nobody, as far as I knew, had really confronted Gore Vidal and Fawn Brodie about their two books, which I thought were pretty awful in many ways. They have had huge sales and been favorably reviewed by some people, to my dismay. So, I told the chairman of the board of William and Mary what I was thinking of doing and he was delighted; he told the president and he was delighted. I got to work on it; I think I worked on it for about a month. That's one of those interludes when I wasn't writing much on my book. I consulted various people, Dumas Malone, Julian Boyd, and Merrill Peterson, and got them to comment on Brodie's book. All their comments were unfavorable. They had not commented publicly to any extent. I convinced them that it was their duty to come out and say what they thought about anything as distorted as this which was giving people such perverted ideas of Jefferson's career. Malone was the most hesitant because he felt that he would be attacking another author in his field, but I agreed to put in the speech that he was reluctant, and so he came through with an awfully good statement including the one about graffiti, which I thought was about the best thing that anybody said; to the effect that "anybody could write graffiti on walls, anybody could write dirty words, but it was shocking that they were so richly rewarded," which got him a brickbat from Brodie in Time. I'm sorry about that because I didn't want to get him in that sort of a controversy. Well, I wrote the thing and it was quite well received, I thought, by the audience. I got a lot of letters from all over about it; Time printed a substantial extract and the William and Mary people sent it out to a lot of different publications and apparently the AP and UP used some, and the Richmond, Norfolk Lynchburg and Raleigh papers carried big extracts. So, it got a fair amount of distribution and I got a huge lot of letters, most of which were entirely favorable. There were some from history professors that said I had performed a service. I never did hear from Brodie or Vidal. I don't know whether they ever saw it. Brodie read what Time had and replied to that. Time had a pretty good summary of what I said about Jefferson but little about Washington.
It would be correct to say that your objection was not with the notion of treating these famous people as human beings, but with what you consider to be a distortion?
Exactly so. I had been advocating treating more figures in American history as human beings and have tried to do it myself in my book on Virginia, but I certainly didn't advocate writing things about them that weren't true, especially things that were very derogatory.
What were the names of these two books?
Fawn Brodie's, Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate Portrait and Gore Vidal's Burr, a novel. But whereas it was a novel, the author said it was "history, not invention" and the publisher made some outrageous statements on the jacket to the effect that it was an accurate picture of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and so forth; that it was a brilliant account of the greatest era in American history. Actually, it was the most grievous series of distortions that I have seen in a long time.