Roundup: Nonfiction

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (336 pp.) Wiencek, author of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White and other historical works, has written an important book certain to trouble admirers of the political thinker and renaissance man known as Thomas Jefferson.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he wrote.  An emancipationist early on in his life, he in fact exploited for commercial purposes the more than 600 slaves he owned during his lifetime, treating brutally the young boys who worked in his nail factory at Monticello.  He talked a good game, played the enlightened master, but knew better: the trees and roads at Monticello were all artfully arranged, says Wiencek, to prevent visitors from seeing the slave quarters.  Noted contemporaries, including Lafayette and Thomas Paine, urged Jefferson to act on slavery.  Out of financial self interest, he failed to do so.  Wiencek’s painfully revealing book will force many to rethink the greatness of the Sage of Monticello.

Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland.  Penguin (330 pp.) A reporter for The Financial Times, The Economist, and other publications, Freeland makes an ambitious attempt to tell us about the new global elite and the great income inequality.  She reminds us of the first Gilded Age in the American 1890s, and notes that whereas that headlong era grew out of the industrial revolution and the opening of the American frontier, the present gilded age and a new plutocracy are the result of a world economy reshaped by the technology revolution and globalization.  The super-elite identify not with their native countries but their own class worldwide.  “Their lives are driven not by culture or seasons or family tradition, but by the requirements of the latest deal or the mood of the markets,” writes the author. Indeed, they are a nation unto themselves.  Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, such as Bill Gates, we never get to hear much from these new plutocrats in these data-rich pages.  Money, it would seem, still buys privacy.

-Joseph Barbato


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