Book Review: The Hemingses of Monticello

Bring a sandwich, because this one takes all day.

Heavy handed and overly long, Annette Gordon-Reed's Pulitzer Prize winning, The Hemingses of Monticello, is a chore to read - which is probably why it won the Pulitzer Prize in the first place.

Reed's book deals with Thomas Jefferson and the sin of slavery which, in-and-of-itself, is nothing new.  The difference lies in Reed's method.  Rather than analyze the issue through the lens of Jefferson, Reed (a respected African American historian and legal professor) opts to approach her subject from the perspective of the Hemings family - the enslaved clan whose lives and fortunes were inextricably bound to Jefferson and Monticello.  It's a worthy idea, but one wishes that counselor Reed would tighten up the prose and move along to the closing argument.

Slogging my way through its 667 pages, I was reminded of high school English class and my frustration with the exasperating wordiness of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville.  Only a few pages in and you're already looking at your watch wondering why we can't slap a scarlet 'A' on this hussy, harpoon us a white whale and call it a day.

Let's first dispense with all the requisite, "Of course slavery is an unalloyed evil, and of course racism is wicked, etc.".   Whether you're writing about the intersection of racism and American history, or where to dine out in San Francisco, don't use six words when three will do and don't restate yourself endlessly.  This is especially advisable when you're doling out pointed social commentary, as Reed does - often.  

Annette Gordon-Reed.  Get to the point already. 

Moreover, since only a limited amount of written testimony or surviving correspondence regarding the Hemingses actually exists, Reed is compelled to infer and assume throughout much of the book.  In principle there is nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that all the redundant, hypothetical, ponderously worded paragraphs begin to crush you beneath their combined weight.

Here's a taste,

What we have in considerations of white male slave owner’s paternity of slave children is a version of Anglo-American law without its usual complement of Anglo-American equity. The doctrines of equity exist alongside the law to help mitigate the harsh and unjust results that come from too strict adherence to legal rules. For example, when no formal documents exist to prove that individuals entered into a contract, but the circumstances strongly indicate that an agreement was made and that one party will be severely damaged if the contract is not recognized, equity allows stepping outside formalities to consider other evidence and, when possible, do justice.
— Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello

Now multiply this by eight chapters too many and you'll gain an idea of what I'm talking about.

Despite its drawbacks, there is much to commend Reed's work.  Her fresh insights into Jefferson's home life and the glimpse she offers us into Monticello's murky racial hierarchy are truly interesting.  I just wish they had been contained in a shorter book.