- “Hidden in Plain Sight”Colloquy with Annette Gordon-Reed on The Hemingses of Monticello
- Introducing the Conversation
These comments on Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello constitute the opening remarks at an interdisciplinary colloquy on the final afternoon of the Society of Early Americanists’ seventh biennial conference. Rather than emphasizing the book’s array of honors, including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, or its author’s having received a MacArthur Fellowship, the panelists focused on ways in which the book excels as an example of storytelling. Following these brief opening remarks, panelists and members of the audience engaged in a lively, substantive discussion of the book and of the role that archival work plays in scholarship on early American literature.
Each of the distinguished scholars in this colloquy, including the book’s author, agreed well in advance to lay out, briefly, a specific issue or question related to the book. The sequence in which their remarks appear here reflects not only the order in which panelists seated themselves at the table but also the design of these colloquies: the author serves as one voice in this colloquy rather than as the respondent.
In proposing a session along these lines, I mistakenly assumed that the late Frank Shuffelton would be available to participate. In assembling the Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, before The Hemingses of Monticello got into print, he included this item among his notes on contributors: [End Page 443] “Annette Gordon-Reed . . . earned a place in history with her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, in which, prior to the DNA findings about Jefferson’s probable paternity of Sally Hemings’ children, she successfully managed to persuade a generation of historians to re-examine their assumptions about the Jefferson-Hemings relationship” (viii). She convinced more than one generation, judging by historian Gordon S. Wood’s footnote in Empire of Liberty, crediting Gordon-Reed with “ha[ving] mounted an enormous amount of persuasive evidence that Jefferson maintained Sally Hemings as his concubine” (514). This expression “concubine” also figures in the title of the review for the New York Review of Books by Edmund S. Morgan and Marie Morgan, which ends: “While praising her grasp of the sources, her legal acuity, her erudition, and the stylishness of her narrative, it remains to be said that her great achievement lies in telling this story. Because it is one of the stories that really matter” (17).
Dennis Moore has a revised and enlarged edition of Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2012. A University Distinguished Teaching Professor in Florida State University’s English Department, he is a past president of the Society of Early Americanists and he coordinates the Early American Matters Caucus within the American Studies Association.
- The Hemingses of Monticello as an African American Novel
The extraordinary and highly creative archival work of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello has altered our understanding of early American history. But I confess that I ultimately read Gordon-Reed’s approximately 700-page family biography from cover to cover because it engages the imagination and offers the pleasures that we traditionally associate with the literary. With its multigenerational perspective on family history, its close attention to the psychological, its thick descriptions of law, politics, and other historical matters, and its strong narrative flow, The Hemingses of Monticello resembles classic realist novels such as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. With its attention to interracial sexuality, The Hemingeses of Monticello also resembles classic nineteenth-century African American novels such as Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends, Charles Chesnutt’s The House behind the Cedars, and William Wells Brown’s Clotel.
The family resemblance to Clotel is especially pertinent because that novel presents a ficionalized account of two daughters and three grand-daughters [End Page 444] of Thomas Jefferson and...