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Thomas Jefferson's Impact on American Literature

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

While you have probably heard of Thomas Jefferson's impact on American government, this lesson considers what the man did for the field of American literature.

Who was Thomas Jefferson?

Few people in American life have made as large an impact as Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, and an ardent, perhaps flawed, patriot, Jefferson laid out a vision of what it was to be an American. Therefore, it is of no surprise that his writing has had an enormous impact on American literature.

In fact, part of what makes it so difficult to define Jefferson's impact on the genre is the fact that his image is so massive in American history, due to his part in helping found the country and shape its society, and yet so light, as so little of what he wrote would be considered literature by many modern observers. Nonetheless, Jefferson has had a massive impact on American literature.

His Style

Notably, Jefferson wrote on a wide array of subjects, ranging from geology to government and philosophy. Simply put, much of what he wrote became starting points for other purely American explorations of the topics. His reverence for other writers had a direct influence on the Library of Congress, as much of the institution's original collection came courtesy of Jefferson.

However, it is in Jefferson's style that something truly American is established. At a time when British writers were eager to still be somewhat verbose, Jefferson rejected superfluous language for something that was much more clear and concise. It is still enormously eloquent, but the writing is designed to be read by anyone who is literate.

His Vision

With this level of accessibility, Jefferson also helped to establish a society that would value literature produced on the edge. While some early Americans held to the seaboard, Jefferson encouraged a country of yeomen farmers to populate the continent. Because of his encouragement, many people moved to the West, and along with their voyages came new pieces of literature. In many ways, the writings of Mark Twain about life on a still not quite settled Mississippi River would have been impossible without Jefferson's vision.

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