U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Speculating on Humanity

I just finished listening to Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello as an audiobook. I use audiobooks for my commute, exercise, cleaning, crafting, etc. The few history books I’ve tried in this format have emphatically not worked as audiobooks (especially compared to fiction). Their narrative structure is simply too diffuse to follow while listening.

I would like to comment briefly on Gordon-Reed’s amazing book as a non-specialist (for others who thought it was amazing, see the Pulitizer and National Book Award committees, among others).

First of all it is highly enjoyable as a read (all 30 hours of it). I think this is one of the first requirements for attention from major award committees, and something that historians fail to achieve all too often (though I think we achieve it much more often than other humanities and social sciences).

Beyond simple enjoyment, the book raises several fascinating issues. Two that I was struck by was the way that Gordon-Reed focuses on the humanity of the Hemingses and the way that she uses speculation to do this. It is my perception that speculative history has automatically been a sign of poor history, but Gordon-Reed’s work should disprove this assumption. She uses intensely careful research to craft a skeleton of facts from which she hangs human flesh. Perhaps we all do this in our writing, without admitting it, but I couldn’t count the number of times that Gordon-Reed starts sentences with “perhaps” and its synonyms. She laid out the evidence she had, the historical context around it, and then suggested possible reasons individuals might have acted in such a way. This is particularly forceful in her situation. We have perhaps more information on the Hemingses than any other slave family in American history, and yet even with that there are large gaps in our knowledge. Gordon-Reed fills in those gaps by carefully correlating dates, extrapolating from other evidence, analyzing naming patterns, and sometimes suggesting what a teenage girl or adult man might have done in such a circumstance (given what we know of their personalities in that time). She is also not afraid to suggest several different interpretations.

Gordon-Reed uses so much speculation because her primary interest is in recreating the lives of the different Hemingses as individuals with emotions, hopes for the future, plans, family connection, and impulses. She argues at one point that “throughout American history there has been a tendency to see African Americans as symbols or representations rather than as human beings. Even when specific details about an individual life are available for interpretation, those details are often ignored or dismissed in favor of falling back on all the supposed verities about black life and black people in general. For African Americans, social history almost invariably overwhelms biography, obscuring the contingencies within personal lives which are the very things historians and biographers usually rely upon to reconstruct events and lives.” Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 290.

As someone elbow deep in writing a collective biography of black intellectuals, I find her argument incredibly coercive. Someone might point out the numerous biographies of African American leaders in reaction to her point. Some of these do achieve a human portrait (Levering-Lewis on Du Bois springs to mind), but all too many fit more neatly within the impossibly perfect–or tragically flawed–leader troupe. I hope that I will be able to achieve as compelling a portrait as Gordon-Reed has, though stylistically with fewer “perhaps.”

Of course, her greatest accomplishment is in reassessing the Thomas Jefferson-Sallie Hemings relationship, particularly within the context of Hemings’ extended family. She emphatically discounts the extremes who would argue that either Jefferson was a demi-god (and who cannot stand the thought that he might have had sex with, let alone love, a black woman) or that Jefferson was a monstrous racist, who is an easy stand in for all white racists. He was a product of his time and his internal life discounted and contrasted with many of his public statements. And he chose in most circumstances to avoid conflict and make those around him love him rather than engaging in direct confrontation or violence. The evidence that Gordon-Reed amasses does indeed suggest that Jefferson’s relationship with several of the Hemingses was amicable, while constraned by the dictates of a slave society. She is a brave woman to take on this thesis.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I haven’t read or listened to The Hemingses of Monticello.

    I have read Gordon-Reed’s earlier Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy, which I used, right after its first edition appeared in the mid-to-late 1990s, in a class I sometimes teach on public history and public memory. It was a particularly interesting book to use at the time because Gordon-Reed had concluded that Jefferson fathered Hemmings’s children just before the DNA analysis was done that suggested that Sally Hemmings’s male descendents share a Y chromosome with Thomas Jefferson’s male descendants. At the time I was teaching this course, the DNA story had just received a lot of news coverage. We spent a good deal of time in class considering why, prior to the DNA analysis, Gordon-Reed had (most probably correctly) concluded that Jefferson had fathered (some of) Hemings’s children, while most other historians had disagreed.

    One of the most interesting aspects of Gordon-Reed’s book (particularly in the context of my course) was that she was not a trained historian. She’s a lawyer. Her first Jefferson and Hemings book was her first work of history.

    The manner in which Gordon-Reed reconstructs and re-presents the past, at least in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, draws heavily on the narrative conventions and traditions of the courtroom–especially of presentations to juries. It’s a subtly different form of storytelling from what we historians are trained to do.

  2. I think one of the reasons I so liked this book is illustrated in this New York Times column about Jefferson: http://kalman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/time-wastes-too-fast/?em.

    In it, Sally Hemmings is just a blot on Jefferson’s otherwise pristine career. A sign that he had flaws, not a whole human being in and of herself. And their relationship, complex as it was, is not a relationship but a dark spot in the history of the author of “all men are created equal.”

    I also think we need to examine Jefferson as a whole person (neither saint nor hypocritical villain). But the wonder of Gordon-Reed’s book is her ability to do this for an entire family of slaves.

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