Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family - Winner, History, 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American FamilyThe Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
By: Annette Gordon-Reed
W.W. Norton & Co, 2008

The controversy surrounding the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings, had its beginnings while Jefferson was still alive, but has to the forefront of Jefferson scholarship in recent years with the development of DNA technology that could potentially support or disprove (or muddle!) the controversy.  Annette Gordon-Reed's book, The Hemingses of Monticello, is her second on the subject - the first being Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  Her first discussed the specific relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.  The Hemingses of Monticello examines the vast interconnectedness between the two families leading up to Jefferson and Hemings and on a little further into the decendents, especially of Hemings. 

There are a LOT of names, places, and dates in this book.  Gordon-Reed clearly did a great deal of research into the papers of Thomas Jefferson and those around him.  She places a heavy emphasis on the need to recognize slaves as people with real feelings and reactions during this time period, which I found to be very interesting.  I do think it is important to always remember that, but I also think that in her attempt she also dismisses the historical fact of the law and slavery as not necessarily accurate depictions of how life really was.  In do this, she often seems to place the social values of today on characters living in a different time and social context.  While slaves were human and had true human emotions, white society treated them as if they were less than human (often regardless of personal beliefs).  White men felt that they could take advantage of slave women because slave women were not as human as they were (in their own eyes).  This is what truly made slavery such an abomination.  Gordon-Reed, though, tries desperately to prove, using the social logic of today, that Jefferson must have loved Hemings. 

When I was in college I wrote one of my major papers on this subject and use Gordon-Reed's first book as one of my sources.  Because of that, I was very interested to see what more she had to say.  While the stories of the two families and how they come in and out of each others' lives is very interesting, she can be repetitive and a bit tedious.  Gordon-Reed makes many assumptions along the way based on deduction but not necessarily fact, which continually reminded me that, as unsatisfying as it is, we will probably never really know what happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.


Rose City Reader said...

Excellent review! I have a real gripe about history books that impose today's ideas (good or bad) on past motives. Like you say, we will never know if Jefferson really loved Hemmings or not.

Rebecca Reid said...

Sounds very interesting, and as Rose City Reader said, excellent review.

AK said...

Thank you both!