J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

National Book Award Nomination for Hemingses

The nominations for the National Book Awards were announced yesterday, and among the nonfiction nominees is Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. It looks like this thick volume assembles just about all the evidence we have about Sally Hemings and her family. Thomas Jefferson inherited those people through his wife, apparently expanded the family by taking Hemings as his mistress, and freed them in his will.

The Hemingses of Monticello has already been widely noted:

Most of that press is highly complimentary. One partial dissent came from Prof. Eric Foner in the New York Times Book Review:
Gordon-Reed acknowledges that it is almost impossible to probe the feelings of a man and a woman neither of whom left any historical evidence about their relationship. [Their son] Madison Hemings’s use of the words “concubine” and “treaty” hardly suggests a romance. But Gordon-Reed is determined to prove that theirs was a consensual relationship based on love.

Sometimes even the most skilled researcher comes up empty. At that point, the better part of valor may be simply to state that a question is unanswerable. Gordon-Reed’s portrait of an enduring romance between Hemings and Jefferson is one possible reading of the limited evidence. Others are equally plausible. ­Gordon-Reed, however, refuses to acknowledge this possibility.

She...is adamant in criticizing anyone who, given the vast gap in age (30 years) and power between them, views the Jefferson-Hemings connection as sexual exploitation.
After Gordon-Reed published her first book on Sally Hemings, some critics accused her of attacking Jefferson and insisted the President could not have had any sort of sexual relationship with his slave. (Actually, not that many people noticed until after D.N.A. testing vindicated her arguments.) Many of those diehards styled themselves “Jefferson defenders.”

Now, according to Foner, Gordon-Reed has become a “Jefferson defender,” untenably insisting on the most benevolent picture of the relationship between him and Hemings. Ironic, no?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thought your readers might also be interested in seeing a video of Prof. Gordon-Reed at Monticello's Jefferson Library talking about her new book.