Love at first sight in the realm of books is a rare occurrence, and sustaining that love across a lifetime without descending into grim toleration – “We stayed together for the sake of the kids” – is rarer still. I’ve managed faithful longevity with a handful of writers, including Shakespeare, Swift and Kipling. When it comes to individual volumes first encountered when young, the list is shorter and at the top is Tristram Shandy, a novel introduced to me in my sophomore year by a professor of English. The consensus in class was that Sterne’s masterpiece was too long, without plot and boring. Few finished it. For me, infatuation was followed by devotion, and I wrote a lengthy paper on the theme of writing as a strategy for staving off death. The narrator is dying of tuberculosis, as was Sterne, but so long as he writes he can go on living – the Scheherazade gambit.
Now I’ve discovered another Sterne loyalist, one who read the novel and Sterne’s other works not long after they were first published: Thomas Jefferson. Sterne brought out the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in 1759, and the remaining seven periodically through 1767. Andrew Burstein in The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist (University of Virginia Press, 1995) tells us Jefferson copied a passage from Vol. IX, Chap. VIII of the novel into his commonplace book in 1772 or 1773:
“Time wastes too fast! every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. the days &c hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return more! every thing presses on: and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!”
Jefferson married Martha Wayles on Jan. 1, 1772. Shortly before her death in 1782, Martha transcribed the first portion of Sterne’s passage quoted above (through “presses on: . . .”) on a small square of paper. Jefferson then completed the passage in his own hand. Burstein reports the paper on which the lines were written was found after Jefferson’s death forty-four year later in “the most secret drawer of a private cabinet.” Inside the folded paper was a lock of Martha’s hair and another from one of their daughters who had died in infancy. One of the two Jefferson daughters who survived into adulthood, Martha, had written on the back of the paper: “A lock of Dear Mama’s Hair inclosed [sic] in a verse which She wrote.” Martha mistook Sterne’s prose for her mother’s poetry. Having learned of Jefferson’s love of Sterne, I’m reminded of what he wrote to his predecessor as president, John Adams, on June 10, 1815: “I cannot live without books: but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.” (ed. Lester J. Cappon, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, University of North Carolina Press, 1987.)
[Andrew Burstein and Catherine Mowbray provide more detail in “Jefferson and Sterne” (Early American Literature, 1994). They note that most of the passages Jefferson copied into his commonplace book were drawn from classical authors. Sterne was the only writer of English prose fiction he included.]