I've been a bit hard on old Dumas Malone in the last few posts, so it's only fair that I give the man his due when I come across passages that are especially striking. In a good way, I should add. His chapter on Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence is, as a whole, exceptional. Here are a few examples so you can enjoy the man in action:
"The literary excellence of the Declaration is best attested by the fact that it has stood the test of time. It became the most popular state paper of the American Republic not merely because it was the first, but also because to most people it has seemed the best. No other American document has been read so often or listened to by so many weary and perspiring audiences. Yet, despite interminable repetition, those well-worn phrases have never lost their potency and charm...It may lack the stark grandeur of certain passages from Lincoln, it may be almost too felicitous; but it has notable elevation of spirit and solemnity of tone. Intended as an expression of the American mind, it was also Jefferson at his literary best."
"On the verge of revolution Jefferson and his colleagues could not be expected to be dispassionate; he had long since weighed the conflicting arguments, and the preponderance on the Patriots' side seemed so great that he saw no need for apothecary's scales. He was wandering in no mist of doubt, seeking the totality of truth. His task as a statesman was to grasp the essence of the controversy, and as the penman of independence to set it forth--not in neutral shades but in bold contrasts of black and white."
Malone is a flawed historian (aren't we all, though?) But I would be lying if I said that I didn't feel something when I read these passages.
In a way, the gap between Malone's success and failure with me as a reader reminds me of my feeling about Aaron Sorkin's writing. As you might imagine, I absolutely love "The West Wing." It's one of the things that made me want to learn more about the presidency in the first place. At the same time, his heightened, passionate writing works best when paired with a subject that merits such language. What works in the Oval Office doesn't work as well when we're talking about the backstage of a comedy show or a network newsroom. The stakes just aren't as high.
As is the case with Malone. When the events are elevated, his worshipful tone connects perfectly. If only he had been able to modify himself when operating in less-hallowed ground.