Oct. 25-Nov. 7, 2002
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Garry Wills takes his turn at writing U.Va. history
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Faculty Actions -- from the October BOV meeting
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The struggle to create the University -- excerpt from Mr. Jefferson’s University
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Dove’s play debuts in C’ville
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Tears for the Earth
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Garry Wills takes his turn at writing U.Va. history

By Matt Kelly

Thomas Jefferson the artist has long captivated historian and author Garry Wills, whose latest book, Mr. Jefferson’s University, is an examination of U.Va.

When National Geographic asked selected authors to write about their favorite places for a new book series, U.Va. was near the top of Wills’ list. “I’ve been visiting it for 30 years, and it has always intrigued me because I see something new every time,” he said. “It is an amazingly rich cluster of interrelations.”

Wills has been writing and teaching aspects of Jefferson for years. He once researched Jefferson’s architecture for American Heritage magazine and has taught courses at Northwestern University on Jefferson the artist.

“Aesthetic considerations were always really powerful for him,” he said.


Reading: Garry Wills will read from Mr. Jefferson’s University Oct. 26 at 2:30 p.m. at the U.Va. Bookstore.
See an excerpt from Wills’ book.

Wills was aware that Jefferson struggled to create the University, but he was not aware of all the details.

“It was nine years of really slugging with the legislature of Virginia, with his own board, with his own illness, with money problems, with worker problems, with material problems,” he said. “It’s just an astonishing epic achievement.”

But the effort also revealed the darker side of Jefferson’s nature, Will said. He envisioned a place where young Southern men would be educated to defend the Southern way of life. Jefferson described the Missouri Compromise, which gave the federal government the authority to exclude slavery from the territories, as a threat to the South, and dismissed it as “restrictionism.” Jefferson did not want the youth of the South to go north for an education and be exposed to these ideas.

“I knew [Jefferson] was very perturbed about losing the slave margin, the three-fifths margin the South had because of the representation of slaves,” Wills said. “He felt if they ever lost that edge, which they would if restriction ever took place in the territories, the Southern way of life would be done for.”

Wills was disappointed Jefferson had made this connection between his University and preserving the Southern way of life.

Reared in Michigan and Chicago, Wills, 68, has a doctorate in theater, which has influenced his choice of subjects.

“I have always been interested in … the theatrics of power symbolizing national meanings,” he said. “The presidents whom I have written about I chose because they were lightning rods of the popular reaction, so that what they symbolized was as important as specific policies.”

Wills has written extensively about the Catholic Church, and his writing career grew from his faith. He started as a reporter and political columnist for the fledgling National Catholic Reporter in the mid-1960s. He expanded to magazines, such as Harold Hayes’ Esquire, for which he wrote three or four pieces a year, and Chicago-based Playboy.

Wills then moved into the classroom, teaching humanities at Johns Hopkins for 18 years, followed by 22 years at Northwestern’s American Studies program. He has since given up tenure at Northwestern to take more time to travel and write.

Mr. Jefferson’s University is not Wills’ last word on the third president. He is currently at work on a book on Jefferson and slave power.

“[Jefferson] thought [‘restrictionism’] was a tremendous threat to the South, and only by training up people who could defend the Southern way of life, including its terrible corollary slavery, could he fight off the ‘restrictionists,’” Wills said.


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