Monday, June 1, 2009
The winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for history, “The Hemingses of Monticello” by Annette Gordon-Reed, is a powerful and compelling depiction of the full and rich lives of slaves and the ways in which they formed our country as powerfully as those that they worked to support during the founding years of this country. It focuses on the family history of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s companion for almost four decades and the mother of four of his children, beginning with her mother Elizabeth.
Gordon-Reed works with scant evidence on the topic of the actual lives and actions of the Hemingses. There are very few letters of or directly about the Hemingses, particularly after the beginning of TJ’s thirty-year relationship with Sally Hemings in the late 1780s, even though their life together was well-known at the time. Most evidence directly concerning Sally Hemings and her families (especially her brothers James and Robert, Jefferson’s eventually freed manservants) comes from Jefferson’s expense accounts and “Farm Book”.
Gordon-Reed meticulously and delicately constructs the evidence of the intelligent and attractive Hemingses in the context of slave life in the latter half of the eighteenth century. She often uses the hard evidence of TJ’s letters to create an extremely compelling narrative for the reader, showing the fullness of lives lived in bondage alongside the tragedy of slavery even in privileged circumstances.
When I was 12 or so, I got my hands on “Gone with the Wind” and powered through it in less than a week. Reading “The Hemingses of Monticello” was like that week, except without privilege blinders on. Though one is the product of nostalgic ignorance of reality and the other an attempt to educate and eradicate that ignorance, they have many similar qualities: strong central female figures, war, slavery, the South, questionable and complicated romances. Like Mitchell, Gordon-Reed’s epic was addictive and spell-binding; unlike Mitchell, Gordon-Reed’s work reflects a reality untold.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s rare to find such a wonderfully written and engaging book that will educate you and inform your knowledge of how this country was founded: not only by heroic documents on our commitment to liberty, but by the bondage of bright and attractive persons of potential.