Monday, August 31, 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

I have finally finished listening to the highly acclaimed family biography The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. At thirty-one hours thirty minutes on twenty-five compact discs, which I listened to over the course of three weeks, the audiobook is as long as some college classes. I wonder if I can apply for credit. I feel that I learned as much or more than I did in some of my classes.

You might wonder why I might commit that much time to one book, which in print is 798 pages. I usually would not, as I really prefer my books to stay under 300 pages. I was intrigued by how it was repeatedly named on best books lists for 2008, and now marketing myself as a biography expert, I felt compelled to give it a shot. Audio sounded liked a good option, as I could drive, cook, and garden while listening to the detailed account of the slave family owned by Thomas Jefferson from the death of his father-in-law John Wayles in 1773 until his own death in 1826.

Listening to the audiobook, I sometimes wondered whether it was properly named, as there were sections in which Gordon-Reed discussed Jefferson without even mentioning the Hemingses. Chapters that focused on Sally Hemings, her mother Elizabeth Hemings, or her brothers James, John, Martin, and Robert, however, never failed to mention Jefferson, which I suppose is unavoidable in light of slave-master relationships. I can accept the title because "Monticello" is the name of a world created by and maintained for Jefferson. The Hemingses were fully absorbed into and trapped by that world. I would estimate the book is 50% Jefferson, 20% Sally Hemings, 20% James Hemings, and 10% everybody else.

Read by Karen White, The Hemingses of Monticello is mesmerizing, but not because there is a flowing narrative. Gordon-Reed takes time and is very thorough in examining the issues of every aspect of lives of Jefferson with his slaves. For example, the arrival of Sally Hemings as the companion of Jefferson's daughter Mary, also known as "Polly," to the London home of John and Abigail Adams after crossing the Atlantic in 1787 gets thirty minutes on the audiobook. The author discusses how Jefferson had asked for a different companion, the precarious nature of the trip, the Adams's assessments of the slave girl, and Jefferson's failure to come from Paris personally to retrieve the pair of young girls. It is only around disc 16 that Jefferson and his party return to America from France. I decided while listening that Gordon-Reed would be an excellent expert witness in a court of law.

It would be interesting to know how the book affects public opinion of Jefferson. Gordon-Reed seems very evenhanded, describing how self-centered and hypocritical the slave-owner could be, but also putting him into the context of his day. Virginia laws made it very difficult to free slaves, and life as freemen was full of dangers for blacks in all of the American colonies. Life under Jefferson seems to have been better than many other possibilities but still maddeningly wrong.

Taking up The Hemingses of Monticello is not to be done lightly. Allow plenty of time. If you do start, don't worry about writing down names. You'll know them all in the end.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Tantor Audio, 2009. 25 compact discs. ISBN: 9781400109753

Also, W.W. Norton, 2009. 798p. ISBN: 9780393064773


The Boss said...

I have listened to about 1/3 of the book Hemingses of Monticello. I agree with you that Reed is very fair and even-handed. This serves to make the history written from an African American writers perspective all the more powerful. I was particularly impressed with how she was able to give insight to Sally's social status using her encounter with Abigail Adams. The absolute absence of any concern for Sally Hemings with regard to possible return trip to Virginia alone aboard a ship with no one to protect her.

Anonymous said...

Annette Gordon-Reed has proven, above all, that she is a lawyer. She uses rampant speculation and assumptions, put forth as truth, to convince the jury. I'm choosing to believe the researched elements, while deflecting the suppositions, because the historical and sociological elements are fascinating.