The winner of the Pulitzer Award for history about a decade ago, I’ve wanted to read this book ever since, but there were always other books or something else in the way. Now I found it at my new source, my local library’s audio book collection. (And I got the Kindle version to go with it.)
It’s been ten years on the market so much of the information has been disseminated in one way or another in other nonfiction or historical fiction books and I’ve read quite a lot of both including a couple biographies of Jefferson which included a certain amount on the Hemingses. There’s more to this book than that. This is the same story but with the Hemingses as the focal point. There’s less about Jefferson the politico and thinker, more about him personally. Look at the title. It is, more than anything, the story of this American family.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
by Annette Gordon-Reed
2009 – 800 pages
read by Karen White – 30h 36m
rating: 9.5 / history
The book felt a wee bit slow until the widowed Jefferson got to Paris bringing a few members of his mixed family with him. And there is a lot of new information about France and the lives of the Jeffersons/ Hemingses while there. It’s almost like the Hemingses were Jefferson’s private family complete with education and allowances as appropriate (I think that’s the point.) But he didn’t give them legal freedom and they didn’t apply for it in France. Returning to Virginia had it’s problems, though.
Gordon-Reed seems very even-handed about Jefferson, slavery, racism, power, freedom and the forces of sex. She writes with a great deal of insight and sensitivity to the subtleties and nuances of male/female, slave/master and family relationships – elaborating on the generalities as well as the specifics of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship. Also, there was a huge difference between their own southern and slave-based society and the freer milieu of Paris.
Another theme in this book is that of women enslaved and used. Human instincts are much the same the world over and slavery, by itself, doesn’t change that. Women are subject to abuse in these cases, but not all men are necessarily rapists even when given the opportunity.
But the book is about the Hemingses and that would entail a lot of information about the lives of enslaved persons and their relationships with white society whether they were free, house servants or field workers in various circumstances – there were LOTS of differences. The book mainly follows the Hemingses and is well researched but there are times when the information is necessarily generalized from the standards of the times – a common feature in the biographies of women and minorities.
The drawbacks are that there are a LOT of family members and their names get mixed up. Also, it’s very long. But it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, amazingly well researched, organized and written. The Pulitzer was well deserved.