Friday, December 4, 2009

Day Four: The Hemingses of Monticello

Day 4 of The 24 Days of Books celebrates the book that took just about every prize for history writing last year -- including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed -- the paperback version of which was recently published. Blending biography, genealogy, and history, this multigenerational saga traces mixed-race bloodlines that American history has long refused fully to acknowledge. In her book, which is based on prodigious research in the voluminous Jefferson papers and other ­sources, Gordon-Reed traces the experiences of this slave family over three generations. The account begins with Elizabeth Hemings, born in 1735 as the daughter of an African woman and a white sea captain. The Hemings family went to Monticello as part of Martha Wayles Jefferson's inheritance. Individual members eventually found their way to Paris, New York, Philadelphia and Richmond, allowing Gordon-Reed to pre­sent a revealing portrait of the varieties of black life in Jefferson’s era.

At the center of the book is the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, although Gordon-Reed acknowledges that it is almost impossible to portray accurately the nature of their relationship, given that neither left any historical evidence about their relationship. Jefferson eventually freed Sally's children, and Jefferson's daughter allowed Sally to live with her sons as a free woman. For the other slaves at Monticello, however, Jefferson’s death in 1826 was a catastrophe. To settle his enormous debts, his estate, including well over 100 slaves, was auctioned, destroying the families he had long tried to keep intact.

Gordon-Reed, a Guggenheim Fellow, is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University.

For many more gift-giving ideas, check out our gargantuan December newsletter, which you can read by clicking here.

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