four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

An American Family

A-The Hemingses of MonticelloAnnette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York University and teaches history at Rutgers University. This is her second book resulting from her research on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings—following Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).

The Topic: In combination with the new science of DNA testing, Annette Gordon-Reed’s 1997 legal investigation into the case of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings led to a new historical consensus that Jefferson likely fathered at least some of Hemings’s children. But Gordon-Reed’s work was not finished; she hoped to give Hemings and her descendants a larger historical life than a footnote in Jefferson biographies. The Hemingses of Monticello does much to illuminate the relationship and its consequences by drawing on Hemings’s origins (she was a half sister of Jefferson’s wife), pivotal moments (she could have declared herself free in France, but she did not), and descendants (several of her children passed for white and slipped out of slave society entirely). While making the case that the Hemingses were a class unto themselves, Gordon-Reed does much to explain the way slavery actually functioned in early America.
Norton. 798 pages. $35. ISBN: 0393064778

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[The book] makes a powerful argument for the historical significance of the Hemings family not only for its engagement with a principal architect of the early Republic, but also for the ways the family embodies the complexities and contradictions of slavery in the United States. … One of the challenges that Gordon-Reed faced in writing is that the character, thoughts, and even appearance of Hemings remain largely opaque." James Smethurst

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Gordon-Reed’s analysis is riveting. … Often the book becomes repetitive in her quest to prove her point, but her research on slave life and what had to be endured by human beings simply because of the color of their skin is sure to leave a mark on whoever reads this insightful book." Renee Warner

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The Hemingses of Monticello is a genealogical inquiry encompassing such a high degree of difficulty for an author that the result can only be described as awesome. … Such multigenerational sagas are usually reserved for famous whites (the John Adams family or the George Bush family). Gordon-Reed has altered the equation." Steve Weinberg

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"As a gifted historian, she uses her highly informed imagination to help us understand the possible and probable motives not only in this relationship but also in the immensely fascinating associations between Jefferson and the other Hemings. … Gordon-Reed has given us an important story that is ultimately about the timeless quest for justice and human dignity." Sanford D. Horwitt

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Leaning heavily on both logic and conjecture, Ms. Gordon-Reed makes the case that Jefferson was a man, not a saint, and Hemings was a woman, not a ‘slave girl.’" Cynthia Crossen

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Liberating the woman known to Jefferson’s smirking enemies as ‘dusky Sally’ from the lumber room of scandal and legend, Gordon-Reed leads her into the daylight of a country where slaves and masters met on intimate terms. In so doing, Gordon-Reed also shines an uncompromisingly fresh but not unsympathetic light on the most elusive of the Founding Fathers." Fergus M. Bordewich

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Engrossing and suggestive, it is also repetitive (we are frequently reminded that the law does not necessarily reflect social reality) and filled with unnecessary pronouncements about human nature (e.g., ‘Youth in females has attracted men in all eras across all cultures’). Readers will find it absorbing, but many will wish it had been a shorter, more focused book." Eric Foner

Critical Summary

Reviewers universally admired Gordon-Reed’s book but differed on how to read it. Looking at The Hemingses of Monticello as a work of history, they were impressed with how Gordon-Reed built a compelling story from scant evidence, yet never seemed unreasonable in her conclusions. Both professional historians and lay readers validated her goal of giving the Hemingses a history of their own and demonstrating the ways they personified the complexities of slavery in the United States. A few reviewers seemed less certain about whether Gordon-Reed’s book could be enjoyed as popular history, noting its considerable size and occasional redundancy. However, critics generally recommended the work, given its fascinating subject and historical importance, to readers up to the challenge.