October 18, 2012
Guest: Sherry Turkle
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As much as most of us are annoyed when a conversation we're having is interrupted while the person we're speaking with reads a text or checks email, let's be honest: Most of us have done the same thing to someone else.
Our digital devices are changing how we communicate and who we communicate with. My guest, Sherry Turkle, has been researching computer culture for 30 years. Her latest book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," has just come out in paperback. It's about developments in digital culture over the past 15 years with a focus on the young, those from five through their early 20s who are digital natives, having grown up with cell phones and digital toys.
Turkle is the founder of MIT's initiative on technology and self and is a clinical psychologist. Her latest book forms a trilogy with her earlier books, "The Second Self" and "Life on the Screen." Sherry Turkle, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the things you write about in "Alone Together" is how children have grown up in a culture of distraction.
SHERRY TURKLE: Yes.
GROSS: I assumed there that you would be talking about how children and teens are so distracted by texting their friends all the time, but you're talking about children's parents, too...
GROSS: ...that children's parents are distracted. I want you to describe some of the complaints that children have expressed to you about their parents being distracted by their personal devices.
TURKLE: Yeah, well, what my fieldwork has shown is that, from the minute these children met this technology, it was the competition. I do my fieldwork in playgrounds, and parents are texting and on cell phones as their kids play on the jungle gyms and swings, and parents text during breakfast and dinner as their children beg them for attention.
Parents text at games when the kids are on the playing field, often missing the big score. Parents are on the phone in cars, and the kids are left to text in the backseat on their devices instead of having those precious moments, you know, to find out what - to eavesdrop on your kids or talk to your kids in the car on the way to school.
So children grow up learning that they're not the center of their parents' attention. One of the most poignant interviews I did was with a young man who talked about how his father used to watch the Sunday games with him and maybe have the Sunday newspaper between them and share the sports section or the news section.
And now his father does his email and texts. And it's just not the same. He misses his dad.
GROSS: So let's turn the tables. What are some of the complaints that parents shared with you about their children being distracted by their cell phones and other devices?
TURKLE: Well, parents then suffer the slings and arrows of not having their children's attention, and I think that what's the big change I see now is that parents are starting to accept, really over the past two years, a little bit of the responsibility for that. It's hard to get your child's attention because your child doesn't want, for example, to answer your calls. Your child will only respond to a text message.
This is a very common complaint of parents. Children during dinner will want to text. It's very hard to get them to come to dinner and eat, and so what I suggest to parents is that they use dinners as really sacred spaces where they say look, dinner is a time when we come together as a family, and if I haven't followed these rules since you were young, I'm sorry. I've made mistakes, too, but now we're starting to put a basket, you know, in the kitchen and in the dining room, and we all put our phones in that basket, and we...
GROSS: Are they turned off?
TURKLE: And the phones are turned off just as a lot of professors are starting to say, you know, look, we've taken things too far, and we put a basket in the classroom, and this seminar really is for us having a conversation together. Because we know that our...
GROSS: Do you do that?
TURKLE: I'm starting to, because I taught a course last semester, and halfway through the course - it was a course on memoir, a course in which the students in the course were sharing very really intimate details of their life. It's a course where students talk about their lives.
We read memoirs, and then the students write memoirs, and members of the class admitted that they were texting, kind of, under the desks. And we talked about it in class, and it was not OK that there was texting during class, and we just decided that...
GROSS: And your objection to that was that people were sharing intimate moments, and other people weren't paying attention? Or were you afraid somebody was, like, live tweeting somebody's personal confessions?
TURKLE: No, the objection of the class was that this was really a conversation and that we were losing - that we were losing the sense of this class as a conversation, and that that is the value of what we're there to do together is to have a conversation together and that that is what we should be about.
And what the students taught - we had a great conversation about what was so seductive about texting, and essentially I heard from the students what I hear from so many adults. I think we've over-hyped the difference between students - between young people and older people on this issue.
And they all say to me that what's so seductive about texting, about keeping that phone on, about that little red light on the BlackBerry, is you want to know who wants you.
GROSS: You had said before a lot of parents complain that their children will accept the parents' text message and respond to that, but they won't pick up the phone, they won't answer the cell phone.
GROSS: I'm sure you've spoken to children and teenagers about that. What's the explanation?
TURKLE: Well, I'm working now on sort of this flight from conversation project because really what I'm hearing is people saying to me, I mean this kind of phone-phobia, and also conversation-phobia. And people basically say - I mean, one 18-year-old says to me: someday soon, but certainly not now - I mean as though I was going to do something to him - certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation.
And when I say to people, what's wrong with conversation, they say, I'll tell you what's wrong with conversation: You can't control what you're going to say, and you don't know how long it's going to take or where it could go. And that's exactly what's wrong with conversation, but that's exactly what's right with conversation.
And this is the kind of thing that people feel they don't have time for in the incredibly busy lives and stressed lives that they have, and it's what people are getting used to not wanting to make space for, emotionally.
GROSS: Now you're talking about adults and children?
TURKLE: I'm talking about adults and children, and children - I mean, I'm thinking of, now, a college sophomore who talks to me about wanting to text a friend. And I say, well, you know, he lives in the dorm next door. Why not go to see him? And this young man actually - basically says, well, I really don't see why a Gchat won't do the job.
I mean, there's almost a falling away of what you would lose by not having the face-to-face. So my concerns are sort of double. It's both that we are not making the time because we feel we don't have the time, and it's also losing the skills that we get from talking to each other face-to-face, which are skills of negotiation, of reading each other's emotion, of having to face the complexity of confrontation, of dealing with complex emotion, of dealing with confrontation.
You know, it's the difference between apologizing and typing "I'm sorry" and hitting send. So I think we're substituting connection for conversation. And developmentally, adolescents would kind of rather do that, but developmentally they're also missing out when they do that. So we're shortchanging ourselves, and I fear that we're forgetting the difference.
GROSS: You write about how parents, nowadays, give their children a cell phone somewhere around the age of nine or by 13, and the parents tell them this is going to help keep you safe because if you get in trouble, if anything goes wrong, you are a phone call away from your parent. What are the pros and cons, as far as you're concerned, of what you describe as the tethered child, the child who always has that connection?
TURKLE: You know, first of all children, when I wrote the book, even in the brief time since I penned the book, the ages have kind of gone down to eight, to seven, to six. Children are getting these phones earlier and earlier. These are years when children need to develop this capacity for solitude, this capacity to feel complete playing alone because, you know, if you don't have a capacity for solitude, you will always be lonely.
And my concern is that the tethered child never really feels that sense of - that they are sort of OK unto themselves. And I talk to college students who've grown up, you know, with the habit of being in touch with their parents, you know, five, 10, 15 times a day. And, you know, it's no longer Huckleberry Finn as a model of adolescence, kind of, you know, sailing down the Mississippi alone. We've developed a model of adolescence and childhood where, you know, we sail down the Mississippi together with, you know, with our families in tow. And...
GROSS: But that's very reassuring to parents, isn't it, I mean getting all those texts?
TURKLE: Parental reassurance is not the goal. The goal is a child who has a healthy separation and a sense of healthy, separated identity, and we have to balance parental reassurance with a child who feels competent, independent and able to be alone.
GROSS: So when you say that a lot of children text their parents five, 10, 15 times a day...
GROSS: Is that in part pressure from parents, like I want you to keep in touch with me, tell me where you are? Or do you think it's more generated from the children wanting to always tell their parents what they're doing?
TURKLE: I think it's both. The parents are pushing for it. The children are compliant. And constantly sharing where you are, what you're doing starts to be kind of a way of life. And when the children start to pull back, the parents get very upset, and many children just feel oh my God, you know, it's just so easy to hit, you know, to just kind of text something that, you know, I'm just not going to make a big deal of it.
But in a way, that keeps kids in a kind of soup of connection that is really changing what we mean by the separation of adolescence, which I still think is a very important part of what adolescence should be about.
GROSS: Some of the teenagers you were interviewing said to you that shouldn't they have a privacy zone, a right to a time when they don't have to take their parents' phone call, or a right to just, like, not respond, just like be on their own and not respond. Would you describe the kind of concerns teenagers were expressing to you about that?
TURKLE: Yes, I mean, they basically felt that the technology was getting in their way of having what they - some of them would call it sort of, teenagers had in yesteryear. They looked at their older brother sisters, and they had two concerns, that first of all their older brothers and sisters were allowed to not be in touch with parents in a way that they felt was not available to them, but also, and this was very moving, they felt that on Facebook their life story followed them through their lives in a way that their older brothers and sisters were allowed to start fresh when they moved from elementary school to junior high, from junior high to high school, and then crucially from high school to college.
And one said to me: My God, it used to be that when you went away to college, you got a chance to start fresh, to be a new person. And that used to - I bet that was great. And I think that this sense of the Facebook identity sort of as your - something that follows you all your life is something that many adolescents feel is a burden.
And I think that there's another thing about the Facebook identity in adolescence, which is that many adolescents used to play with identity, play with multiple identities in adolescence, and that used to kind of be their fun. And now there's one identity that counts, it's the Facebook identity.
And I think many adolescents are also feeling the pressure of that. So there are many things about the new technology that's changing the nature of adolescence, and I think that the complaints of adolescents about the new technology are - it's a long list even as they're, you know, even as they're working with it.
GROSS: Getting back to the idea of privacy from your own parents, did a lot of teenagers express to you the sense that they're always on call?
TURKLE: Yes, teenagers do feel on call from their parents. They are on call from their parents, and there are struggles within families of how much they should be on call because parents get used to texting and then worrying if a child doesn't respond because we're all used to texting and then basically feeling that, you know, whereas if someone didn't respond to a telephone call within five minutes, well, that was natural, I mean a voicemail or telephone call, that was something that, you know, you maybe had 24 hours, 10 hours to get back to.
But a text message, you know that that person has gotten it, and adolescents feel the kind of pressure of parental concern if they don't get right back to them. And I think that's - you know, that's something that adolescents complain about. They don't want to feel on call in that way, and yet parents start to worry.
GROSS: How long have you been concerned about this? How recent do you think the phenomenon is that young people are growing up uncomfortable - often uncomfortable with conversation and preferring texting because it's safer?
TURKLE: I began to see this, I would say, about five years ago. I began - I think this began with the - with texting as a - with Facebook and texting, with the advent of a powerful new technology that really allowed you to put up a profile, curate a self, put up an ideal self that was the self you wanted to be, not necessarily the self you were, and then hide behind the self and the texts and really live a life in which, you know, you could hide behind the Net in really a new kind of way.
GROSS: So you're describing a certain insecurity or anxiety there that if you show your real self or your physical self in some relationships, that might be uncomfortable.
TURKLE: Yes, and I also began to see something new that I call "I share, therefore I am." You know, it used to be that people had a way of dealing with the world that was basically, I have a feeling; I want to make a call. And now I would capture a way of dealing with the world which is, I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.
That is that with this immediate ability to connect and almost pressure to do so because you're holding your phone, you're constantly with your phone, it's almost like you don't know your thoughts and feelings until you connect. And that again is something that I really didn't see until texting.
You know, kids are sending out texts all the time. First it was, you know, every few minutes. Now it's many times a minute, people walking along the street continually texting. As I say during class...
GROSS: Yes, I've nearly gotten killed by some of them.
TURKLE: Yeah, I mean, so it's a way of life to be always texting, and when you look at these texts, it really is thoughts in formation, and it's as though - you know, I do studies where I just sit for hours and hours at red lights, watching people unable to tolerate being alone. It's as though being alone has become a problem that needs to be solved, and then technology presents itself as a solution to this problem.
But, you know, if you can't - you know, if we don't teach our children to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely. You know, being alone is not a problem that needs to be solved. The capacity for solitude is a very important human skill.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what you describe as presentation anxiety.
GROSS: How you present yourself on Facebook or whatever social media site you're on. And I think this would carry over too to how you present yourself on a dating site, which is an issue for a lot of people. And what are some of the anxieties people are having over - young people in particular - about having to create this online self that people will be basically judging you on and thinking that that is who you are, that is the essence of who you are?
TURKLE: Well, as one of my, as one 16-year-old put it to me, it's all about the pretty. I mean kids use special programs that make their Facebook picture look thinner. They agonize over how to present themselves. You know, one kid I interviewed said, you know, should I - this lovely young man, you know, said you know, should I say that I like Harry Potter because that makes me look cool and I'm in touch with my child side? Or should I not say I like Harry Potter because that makes me look too childlike, you know, kind of...
TURKLE: You know, you - you know, everything is about how you present yourself, and then also you're presenting yourself in a way that essentially will win you friends.
GROSS: I guess you never before had to literally construct a self before, you know, had to define who you are, put up the picture, tell what you liked...
GROSS: ...and what you didn't like.
TURKLE: And do it every day.
TURKLE: And do it every day, because there's an, you know, you can't let it lapse. You can't let it lapse, but you can't do it too much. You can't be too anxious but you can't just kind of, you know, adolescents and young adults talk about how you can't, you know, you can't kind of let it go for a week and you can't seem too anxious about updating it but you can't just let it go. There's an art to exactly how to manage it and, you know, these people have a lot of other things on their mind - getting into college, being in high school, being in college. You know, we have other demands that we - doing, you know, getting good grades, being on teams...
GROSS: Well, you talk about getting into college, and college...
GROSS: ...so many colleges now, you have to write that college entrance essay...
GROSS: ...which is also like, in a more sophisticated way, presenting a self, you know, probably an idealized self because you're trying...
GROSS: ...you're trying to get in. You're trying to impress people.
TURKLE: Well, a lot of these kids talk about having to, you know, somehow sync - now that they know colleges are looking at the Facebook profile, you know, the art of syncing the Facebook self with the college presentation self; it can't be exactly the same but they can't be, you know, too different. And the notion of what you're calling, what I call presentation anxiety and the thing that you're picking up, the performative self, the degree to which the Internet has created a kind of culture of performance with all of the new pressures that that entails is, again, when you talk about things that I didn't foresee when I wrote "The Second Self" in 1984, when I wrote "Life on the Screen" and discussed this sort of identity play, I mean I - these were not the things on my mind when I talked about that playful self-exploration. What's happening here is work. It's not quite playful self-exploration. The emphasis has moved from playful self-exploration to really a kind of work, consequential work.
GROSS: The way you're describing it reminds me of when you're going for a job interview and you really have to like sell yourself.
TURKLE: But in a very real way these Facebook profiles are becoming job interviews. The job, you know, people are...
GROSS: That's true, people are literally looking at them.
GROSS: No, that's right. That's right.
TURKLE: Your association is, your association is apt. People are looking at these Facebook profiles when people are applying for jobs, and I think teenagers now know this, young adults know this. And so my early enthusiasm about the Internet as a place for playful self-experimentation - I used the work of Ericsson to think about the moratorium, a place for identity exploration. I mean all of that kind of enthusiasm for this as identity play, it can happen, but that's not the main thing that's happening.
GROSS: I hear parents of young children, you know, by young I mean, say, you know, nine to 14, 15, complaining that their children are, you know, insulted or attacked online, and that kids can be very brutal toward each other and very unthinking in what they say about each other. It's even easier to be that way when you're not making direct contact. How much have you looked into that, the kind of online bullying that so many kids experience?
TURKLE: I've looked into this a great deal, and it's not just kids. And it all stems from the same thing - which is that when we are face to face - and this is what I think is so ironic about Facebook being called Facebook, because we are not face to face on Facebook, we are not face to face on the Internet. You know, when we are face to face, we are inhibited by the presence of the other. We are inhibited from aggression by the presence of another face, another person. We're aware that we're with a human being. On the Internet we are disinhibited from taking into full account that we are in the presence of another human being.
GROSS: You know what this reminds me of just in my own life...
GROSS: ...you know, as an adult and a professional? I've had people walk out on me during interviews.
It's always been a long-distance interview, when I'm in the studio in Philadelphia and they're in...
GROSS: ...New York or California or, you know...
GROSS: ...LA, you know, Chicago, whatever. I've never had somebody be really rude to me or walk out on me when we were sitting face to face.
TURKLE: Absolutely. I just recently interviewed someone who gave me the most concrete and mundane example of this, which didn't involve bullying. He was talking about as a child wanting to get out of dinner. So this wasn't bullying. So I think it makes a better example - wanting to get out of dinner with his grandmother. And his mother used to say: Call her. And so he had to call her and he had to hear her voice saying, But honey, your grandfather and I have just set the table, the chicken is in the oven, the asparagus are all ready, we're waiting for you, we want to hear about the class you're taking, we're so sorry, we miss you. He could hear even on the phone - not face to face - the voice, the disappointment. He was over there in a flash. As opposed to sitting down, typing or texting - I'm not coming over - and hitting send. It's all the difference in the world and that's only the voice. Can you imagine having to go over to your grandmother's house and saying, I'm not coming over for dinner, I'm too busy?
GROSS: Do you have any advice for the parents of children or for, you know, young people about how to deal with online bullying? I know advice isn't your thing, but I thought I'd ask.
TURKLE: No, advice - no, advice very much is - advice very much is my thing.
TURKLE: First of all, if you know who it is, you ask for a face to face meeting. The most important...
GROSS: You, the person being bullied or you, the parent of the person being bullied?
TURKLE: Well, it's best if you deal through a teacher or a parent. It's always best if an adult, I mean certainly if you can deal with an adult or a counselor of some sort to set it up and act as a mediator. But in every case where something is happening on the Internet that's disturbing, you know, when you're a child or when you're a grown-up, the way to handle it is to bring this to the face to face. Because nine times out of 10, having a conversation and triggering all of the, you know, the complexity and the power and the virtues of our human responses to each other when in fact we allow the complexity of these human responses to kind of kick in really helps the situation.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sherry Turkle. Her book "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," is now out in paperback.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more about how our personal devices are affecting our relationships with other people and with our sense of identity.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sherry Turkle. We're talking about how our relationships with our personal devices are affecting our relationships with other people, as well as our sense of identity. She's the author of the book "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," and this is basically her third book about how the Internet is affecting our lives. She's a professor at MIT, where she directs the Initiative on Technology and Self.
You've been studying how the Internet is affecting our relationships and sense of identity for a long time. So you've seen basically like a generation or two grow up with this.
So you've talked to people who use, you know, all of the personal devices now but didn't grow up with them, and you've talked to a lot of people who grew up with them and don't know any other world but the world of personal devices, of texting and cell phones and email and all these other applications. So what would you say are some of the major generational differences you've seen in how people respond to their devices and to other people?
TURKLE: Well, the most surprising thing for me is the similarities rather than the differences. Of course there are differences. You know, sleeping with your cell phone is something that young people do. Very few young people don't sleep with their cell phones. They don't even pretend that it's an alarm clock. I mean...
TURKLE: Older people sleep with their cell phones and they, you know, will pretend. In an interview I always ask, do you sleep with your cell phones? And older people say yes, I use it as an alarm clock. Young people just admit that they sleep with their cell phones and they check their email, they check their text many times during the night. Older people will go through the - well, at least tell you that they use it as an alarm clock. That's one kind of difference in how the interview unfolds. But one of the things that I've got to say really has surprised me is how the hype about generational difference I think is greater than the difference themselves. I think we have become - that the pull of these devices is so strong that we've become used to them faster than anyone would have suspected. I came to this interview without my phone and when I got to the studio, I realized I'd left it behind and I felt a moment of, oh my god, I left my cell phone behind, and I felt it kind of in the pit of my stomach. And I had to stop myself and think, I'm here. I really don't have anyone I need to call.
GROSS: One of your concerns is that young people growing up today have a different view of privacy, because so much of their life is public, because so much of your life is on Facebook or your, you know, your social network of choice and, you know, immediate expressions through texting and stuff, cell phone pictures, everybody's documenting everything and sending that, that there isn't this sense of privacy that there used to be. What are your concerns about how that will affect our larger culture?
TURKLE: When I was a young woman, my grandmother took me to the mailboxes, and she said, the thing about being an American is that nobody can open the mail. It's a federal offense. And you know, young people today grow up thinking everybody can open your mail. And you know, what is democracy without privacy? What is intimacy without privacy? I think that we - the problems is with adults. We haven't given young people a legacy of how to think about democracy and intimacy without privacy. I don't think it's a problem for the young. I think it's a problem for the older generation who has not thought about the legacy and the laws and the protections that we want to give to the young.
I see this as a problem for the institutions and how we have regulated these new technologies that we've built. So it's not surprising that we've built technologies that have no protections and then somehow we turn to the young and this is what we've given them and then they don't feel a sense of privacy. I don't see it as their problem. I see it as ours.
And I think it's a - I think this is something that we need to be thinking very hard about in the years ahead, because I think democracy needs privacy. I think intimacy needs a sense of privacy.
GROSS: And you're afraid that some privacy laws might erode because people will stop putting the same premium on privacy because they didn't grow up with much of it.
TURKLE: Absolutely. But I don't see this as, oh my god, the young have no sense of privacy. I see this as a problem of legacy, of our generation, who did not think ahead - and I include myself here - who didn't think ahead as to how we feel about why democracy and intimacy needs privacy. I think we're laying this on young people as though we're surprised that they don't have a sense of privacy.
We provided an Internet. We provided them a communications culture that didn't offer them a chance for privacy.
GROSS: Our time is up, and before I say good-bye, I was just wondering, since you explained that you forgot your cell phone today and your first reaction was kind of panic...
GROSS: So when this interview is over, what's next? Do you go to wherever you were supposed to be headed? Or do you go back home first and get your cell phone before doing anything else?
TURKLE: Well, I'm sort of intrigued by a cell phone-free day. You know, I mean I laughed at myself. I laughed at that moment of - I laughed at that moment of panic. I mean I think, you know, I think it's good to recognize there but for the grace of God go I kind of feeling. I mean I'm not immune from the - I'm not immune from the phenomenon I describe. It was a very interesting moment.
GROSS: But aren't you asking yourself - say your daughter really needs to get in touch with you. Or say one of your students really needs to get in touch with you. Or say you really need to get in touch with somebody.
TURKLE: Well, you know, I think that a lot of this sense of emergency - a lot of the sense of emergency that we feel about this "really needs to get in touch" - you know, I think we've whipped ourselves up. I think we have really whipped ourselves up into a state where we live in a sense of emergency that is perhaps inappropriate. I wrote...
GROSS: Well, you bring up in your book, like, in the back of a lot of people's minds there's like: What if a 9/11 attack happens and I don't have my cell phone?
TURKLE: Right. Well, actually, I think that 9/11 is a very important actor in this story because I've interviewed so many people who they talk about the emergency of what would happen. What would happen? They won't go to the candy store. They won't go to the convenience store without their cell phone. Even when they have their children with them.
And when I interviewed them about why that is, their thoughts go back to 9/11. And I think that 9/11...
GROSS: Understandably, I'd say. Yeah.
TURKLE: Well, the 9/11 culture has - the convergence of the cell phone, this technology, with the 9/11 culture is a very, very important part of our story, and of the story of this technology. And you know, I mean I think there comes a point where, you know, are we going to live every day of our lives on high alert? And I guess I'm willing to live today not on high alert.
GROSS: Good luck with that.
TURKLE: Well, thank you.
GROSS: You're welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.
TURKLE: My pleasure.
GROSS: Sherry Turkle's latest book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" has just come out in paperback. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Historian Henry Wiencek has spent much of his career studying American slavery and its legacy. His 2003 book "An Imperfect God" investigated George Washington's relationship to his slaves at Mt. Vernon. His new book, called "Master of the Mountain," is about Thomas Jefferson's attitude towards slavery. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: His public words have inspired millions, but for scholars his private words and deeds generate confusion, discomfort, apologetic excuses. When the young Thomas Jefferson wrote, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, there's compelling evidence to indicate that he indeed meant all men, not just white guys.
But by the 1780s, Jefferson's views on slavery in America had mysteriously shifted. He published racial theories, asserting, for instance, that African women had mated with apes. Jefferson financed the construction of Monticello by using the slaves he owned - some 600 during his lifetime - as collateral for a loan he took out from a Dutch banking house.
And when he engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson pushed for slavery in that territory. By 1810, Jefferson had his eye fixed firmly on the bottom line, disparaging a relative's plan to sell his slaves by saying it would never do to destroy the goose. Faced with these conflicting visions of Jefferson, scholars usually fall back on words like paradox and irony.
But historian Henry Wiencek says words like that allow a comforting state of moral suspended animation. His tough new book, called "Master of the Mountain," judges Jefferson's racial views by the standards of his own time and finds him wanting. Unlike, say, George Washington, who freed his slaves in his will, Wiencek says Jefferson increasingly rationalized an abomination.
As an engrossing investigation into Jefferson's change of heart and mind, "Master of the Mountain" is narrative history wrapped around an incendiary device. Surely political pundits and Jeffersonians will be wrestling over Wiencek's explosive interpretations of the historical evidence, some of it newly discovered, for years to come.
One of the incontestable strengths of Wiencek's book is the way it transports readers deep into the hierarchical world of Jefferson's Monticello, an earthly paradise of rationality built and maintained on foundations of barbarism. Jefferson has been characterized as a progressive master but the Monticello machine, Wiencek says, operated on calibrated violence.
Among many other sources, he points to a formerly deleted passage in Jefferson's farm book, a daily compendium of working life at Monticello. That report describes how the output of the nail forge was improving because the small ones who work there were being whipped. Those small ones were slave boys of between 10 and 12 years old.
Wiencek also evocatively describes Jefferson's morning routine, how he would walk back and forth on his terrace every day at first light and look down on a small empire of slaves - among them brewers, French-trained cooks, carpenters, textile workers, and field hands.
Many of those slaves were related to each other. Some were related by marriage and blood to Jefferson himself. Jefferson's wife had six half-siblings who were enslaved at Monticello. To add to the Gothic weirdness, Jefferson's own grandson, Jeff Randolph, recalled a number of mixed race slaves at Monticello who looked astonishingly like his grandfather, one man so close that at some distance or in the dusk, the slave, dressed in the same way, might be mistaken for Mr. Jefferson.
According to this grandson, Sally Hemings was only one of the women who gave birth to these Jeffersonian doubles. Wiencek's scholarship infers that a potent combination of profit and sexual access afforded by slavery made the institution more palatable to Jefferson. As the years went by, Jefferson was called to account by his aging revolutionary comrades, among them the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
All of them pressed Jefferson on the question of why this eloquent defender of liberty would be himself a slave owner. Kosciuszko even drew up a will in which he left Jefferson money to buy his slaves' freedom and educate them so that, as he wrote, each should know the duty of a citizen in the free government.
According to Wiencek, Jefferson put off each of these patriots agitating for emancipation with a variation of the response: not yet. When Kosciuszko died, his estate was Jefferson's for the taking, but he refused the bequest and held onto his profit-generating slaves. George Washington is typically viewed as something of a cipher, but in "Master of Mountain" it's Jefferson who's the ultimate founding enigma.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves" by Henry Wiencek. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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