One of the highlights of my week was attending a talk by the historian Annette Gordon-Reed about her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Norton, 2008). (Here’s a local review and author interview, and here’s Edmund Morgan’s review essay, “Jefferson’s Concubine,” from the NYRB.)
I had publicized the event on the course-blog for my Swift and Literary studies students, since it was an 18c topic and I thought they could use this episode to talk about history, genealogy, and commodification. And indeed the students who made it there enjoyed the talk and made all those connections, and then some.
For my own purposes, though, the talk, and AGR’s work more generally made me think about the role of biography in humanistic inquiry, since it seems to play an underanalyzed role in disciplines like history and literature and political theory. And to some extent, her story was a story of how a scholar discovers the story she wants to tell and learns how to tell it from long periods of immersion in the archives. I suppose this is a very traditional disciplinary tale, until we see who is telling it and the kind of tale she is telling.
AGR was frank about how, growing up in Conroe, TX, she first read about Jefferson in her grade school classes and had trouble reconciling her admiration for his love of books with her wariness towards him as a slaveowner. This puzzlement was replaced by more sustained scholarly interest when she first read such books as Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black and Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. But Jefferson remained a problem and a puzzle to her because of the profoundly mixed character he displays in his relations with blacks.
Much, much later, AGR found herself personally confronting the doubleness of Jefferson and the “open secrets” of his domestic arrangements while reading his farm book, the accounts of expenses and events related to Monticello, which is now kept in the Massachussetts Historical Society. These very prosaic records contain much of the information we possess about the Hemingses, who surely must be one of the best documented families of enslaved people from this period. AGR described to us the steadily accumulating anger and impatience she felt at Jefferson’s neat handwriting and precise notations in those account-books, when he was also the person who could direct those lives with such unquestioned power and authority. And she wryly noted that because Jefferson never practiced double-entry book-keeping, he never settled his accounts or totaled up his debts, with the result that he died with over $100,000 in debt.
I appreciated AGR’s candid account of her approach to history-writing, because she talked about it as a “search for commonalties” and a continual “challenge to one’s empathy,” especially when the events described challenge our own sense of right and wrong. At the same time, she readily acknowledged the “weirdness” of slave-era Virginia plantation families, where a half-sister could own another half-sister and her family, and take them along as possessions to her newly acquired estates, as Jefferson’s wife did with Sally Hemings upon her marriage.
Listening to AGR talk about the ambiguously enlightened figure of Jefferson, I was reminded of another plantation diarist from roughly this period, the Jamaican overseer Thomas Thistlewood. Thistlewood, a figure who lacked Jefferson’s would-be aristocratic or intellectual qualities, kept extensive diaries throughout his time in Jamaica, recording not just his expenses and debts, but the tortures and rapes he imposed upon his slaves, together with scientific observations in horticulture and meteorology. Trevor Burnard‘s important Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire is a really interesting take on the historical, social and political forces that gave Thistlewood the power to act as he did. But Burnard is as puzzled by his subject as AGR is by hers, when he sees that curious, unannounced mixture of Enlightenment and brutality combined in a single character.
UPDATE: Congratulations to Annette Gordon-Reed for winning the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. See here for an announcement and author interview.