Writing a book about Thomas Jefferson means entering a very crowded field. From 1990 to 2017, the University of Virginia Press alone put out sixty-eight titles on the man, while hundreds more were issued by other publishers. With new tomes every year about the Adamses, Franklin, Hamilton, Jackson, Jay, Livingston, Madison, Monroe, Randolph, and Washington, many of them generously publicized by PBS or C-SPAN’s Book TV, talking about the founders has become a sort of American intellectual industry. No framer or father is exempt from tribute or scorn from scholars, pundits, and the average citizen on subjects from the legacy of slavery to the intent of the authors of the Constitution. These men are the Greek pantheon of twenty-first-century America. What’s left for a young scholar to say?
Jeffrey Einboden, professor of English at Northern Illinois University, is aware of what such challenges mean for his own book, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives, which tells the story of two African Muslim slaves on the run in Kentucky who appeal to President Jefferson for their freedom. “It runs the risk,” admits Einboden, “of overshadowing Muslim slaves yet again, eclipsing their experiences by placing them in proximity to a towering figure in the American mind.” But with such an enthralling premise as Arabic slave writings in the early United States—including archival jewels unearthed for the first time—the book makes a new contribution despite the odds.
Einboden reveals a bank of forgotten moments tournants in which Islam and Arabic shaped America’s founding. Doing so, he expands on his earlier work on Arab-Islamic writings and nineteenth-century Western culture, whether Anglo-German literature in Islam and Romanticism or the imprint of Arabic on US literature in The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture. The latter focuses on “personal moments of Muslim source reception” by Western icons like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Washington Irving. Similarly, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives is not a straightforward biography of the third president, but a microliterary history with a touch of scholarly imagining about far-flung people and places.