Friday, March 13, 2009

Reactions to the Hemingses of Monticello

First, I need to start by saying that I haven't quite finished The Hemingses of Monticello. When you take out the acknowledgments and endnotes, I'm just about half-way through. Last night, I caught up with Thomas, James, and Sally in Paris ...

There were two things that made this a very intriguing selection for me ....
  • I live in the shadow of Monticello mountain (I see it from the Giant parking lot whenever I go grocery shopping), and
  • I love history.
The Hemingses of Monticello is most definitely filled with history. Lots of well-cited history. Annette Gordon-Reed has done her homework and then some. This is a book filled with facts and a well-crafted chronology . The author has put the details together so meticulously that we see less about the individuals and more about their placement in time. She seems so intent on getting it "right" that feelings are described as a set of possibilities or explanations.

What the book lacks, as Jill so eloquently pointed out, is a story. Reading this post over at I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) this morning also clarified that. Last week I jumped ahead and read the Epilogue. It is not because I don't want to finish the book - I do (and I will). I jumped ahead because I was looking for some affirmation that after all of the detail, Gordon-Reed would tell us "the rest of the story."

Yes, she lets us know how the family evolved. But she never strays from her original style. Unfortunately, this isn't a book where you talk about the characters as we did with The Thirteenth Tale. I really thought the book would draw out those types of discussions: why was James so willing to take risks traveling from Richmond to Charlottesville alone? did the Hemingses suffer because of Jefferson's waivering philosophy toward slavery? did he behave differently in front of Wayles and others than he did when it was just "the family"? etc.

In putting together this book, Gordon-Reed relied heavily (as historians do) on primary sources. Her sources included lots of correspondence (largely the landowners) and oral history (family stories passed down by the Hemingses). She admits throughout that there are gaps in the documentation, such as John Wayles' family tree and who attended to Martha Jefferson in her final days. Frankly, I was disappointed in how she presented the information she did find. The discussion of emotional issues (at least to this point) are recitations of fact, and the language doesn't convey the feelings themselves. Sometimes, the explanation is "given the culture of the 18th century, So-and-so might have felt X ..."

Gordon-Reed does an exceptional job in presenting a balanced look at Thomas Jefferson. He is at times a very likeable person who seems to be a truly Renaissance man. But there are aspects to his personality (beyond just ego) and events where he shows himself to be a self-righteous, condescending landowner, no different than his neighbors. I have always thought that he was enlightened, purposeful, and a curious learner. I never really saw him in the context of his married life. Now, because of Gordon-Reed's presentation, I would like to find other broad histories of Jefferson and learn more.

This is a book that is better read in small pieces, not only because the author packs each chapter with so much information, but because there is a lot to absorb. Each night, I close the book wondering about the story. I have the facts, I can set the scene, but I still have questions. I need time to process what the book doesn't.

The Hemingses of Monticello is a book for Jeffersonian historians, not the casual reader. That's unfortunate, because I think there is a lot to be gained in learning more about the stories of our ancestors. This is a compelling story still waiting to be told.

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