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Book Review: The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello

Book Review:  The Fruits and Fruit Trees of MonticelloBook Review: The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello

Book Review: The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello

The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello by Peter J. Hatch 222 pp., University of Virginia Press, 2007, $29.50

Peter J. Hatch’s The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello is so comprehensive that I was stunned to discover that it is actually just one of four books written by Mr. Hatch on the topic of the gardens at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

In addition to being a prolific author, Mr. Hatch was the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for 35 years. In addition to his work at Monticello, Mr. Hatch has restored historical gardens and orchards in North Carolina (Old Salem) and Ohio (Adena Mansion and Gardens), among other places. According to his website, http://www.peterjhatch.com/, Mr. Hatch even played a part in creating Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House.

Mr. Hatch shows much evidence of his vast horticultural knowledge and experience on the pages of The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello. His comprehensive and engaging writing brings Colonial American history to life through the lens of fruit growing and orchards. I truly enjoyed his approach, and it made me wish that all history books and textbooks could be a touch more fruit-centric. I confess that I generally tend to avoid history books, an aversion which I developed during my childhood: my father was an American History teacher and, though I appreciate them now, his dinnertime history lectures were lost on me during my youth. So, I can honestly say that this book will appeal to even the most reluctant students of history, provided that they are fond of fruit.

The body of this book is divided down into several sections, one of which focuses on the history of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy of fruit growing and agriculture. In this section, Mr. Hatch moves deftly between varied topics including biographical information about Thomas Jefferson, historical restoration as it pertains to Monticello, and the history of American horticulture and viticulture from the Colonial era to the present day. I found this section to be fascinating for many reasons, one of which being that Thomas Jefferson himself faced many of the same problems that fruit growers and hobbyists face today. These included the demands of his career encroaching on his fruit growing hobby, intense disease pressure on his orchards, and a lack of skilled labor to help him with his projects.

The other sections of this book focus on the types of fruit grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. These included apples, peaches, cherries, pears, plums, quinces, currants, figs and grapes among others. Each type of fruit has a chapter dedicated to it, and the chapters have fitting and creative titles that include “Apples: Our Democratic Fruit, Nectarines: The ‘Artificial Plant,” and “Pears: Leisure-Class Fruit.” The chapters range between two and thirty pages each, with grapes and apples having the most pages dedicated to them—thirty and twenty pages respectively. Each chapter contains information about horticultural practices used to grow the fruit at Monticello and whether or not they were successful.

Each chapter also includes commentary on the history and provenance of the respective fruit varieties grown at Monticello, with observations and quotations regarding those varieties made by nurserymen and horticulturalists of the era. Enlightening commentary by Mr. Hatch is prominent throughout the book, and shows deep scholarship. I could see many of the opinions expressed in this book setting off debate amongst modern fruit aficionados as easily as it must have during Jefferson’s era. For instance, the chapter on grapes, “Grapes, The Species of Utopia,” contains the following quotation concerning native vs. introduced grape varieties, a topic still hotly debated in our day and age:

It seems odd that the cosmopolitan, discriminating Jefferson, so enamored of the classic wines of France, would praise such an inelegant, harshly flavored, sweet wine as is made from the lowly Scuppernong... Some historians have described Jefferson as a “faddist” when it came to wine choices... Jefferson’s puzzling wide-eyed endorsement of wine made from native Scuppernong, Catawba, and Alexander grapes, however, was typical of the patriotic advocacy he showed toward the horticultural products of the New World... Such a curious enthusiasm reflects the tradition of natural historians since the early seventeenth century…who glorified the natural products of the New World in order to justify its exploration and settlement.

This 222 page book is meticulously researched, and contains extensive notes and bibliography for readers who want to deepen their understanding of eighteenth and nineteenth century history viewed through the prism of orchards and vineyards. The reference section of the book includes extensive bibliography and notes. I particularly enjoyed looking at the appendix entitled “Fruit Varieties Grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.” It lists the names of each variety of fruit or nut grown by Thomas Jefferson. Then, for each variety, Mr. Hatch goes above and beyond by listing print references in which each applicable variety is mentioned as well as the nurseries that sold the variety and contemporaries of Jefferson’s (including George Washington!) by whom the variety was also grown.

The book is lavishly illustrated, and contains photographs as well as images of hundreds of historical documents, portraits, paintings and sketches. Thumbing through the volume simply to look at the illustrations and their captions gives the reader an experience somewhat akin to attending a well-curated museum exhibit.

The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello is likely to appeal to just about any history buff or student of horticulture. However, the topics touched on in this book run the gamut from archaeology to business and from biology to politics, so it is fit to grace any Renaissance man or woman’s bookshelves.

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