cover image Mr. Jefferson's University

Mr. Jefferson's University

Garry Wills. National Geographic Society, $20 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-7922-6531-3

Skilled historians have a way of making the past seem more vivid than the present, and Wills (whose Lincoln at Gettysburg won a Pulitzer) is no exception. His new book is part of National Geographic's series devoted to travel writing (other titles include Oliver North on Oaxaca and A.M. Homes on L.A.), though it doesn't quite feel like it belongs. Wills is far nimbler at describing the hurdles Thomas Jefferson faced while constructing the""academical village"" of his dreams, the University of Virginia, than he is at imparting any real sense of what a visit to the finished product is like. Jefferson employed a fair amount of diplomatic and legislative trickery along the project's course--fending off competition from the burgeoning College of William and Mary (his alma mater), deflecting criticism over not having a chapel or professor of divinity, and enlisting the advice of such esteemed fellow architects as Benjamin Latrobe. Describing these various tasks is by far Wills's strongest gift, and he's wise to devote as much of the book to them as he does. (An early chapter describing the central buildings one by one, while well reasoned, feels a bit obligatory.) Visitors to the Charlottesville campus may not glean much in the way of practical information from Wills's tour of the university, but they'll have a much deeper appreciation for how it got there.