The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

April 15, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family’s dispersal after Jefferson’s death in 1826. It brings to life not only Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson but also their children and Hemings’s siblings, who shared a father with Jefferson’s wife, Martha. The Hemingses of Monticello sets the family’s compelling saga against the backdrop of Revolutionary America, Paris on the eve of its own revolution, 1790s Philadelphia, and plantation life at Monticello. Much anticipated, this book promises to be the most important history of an American slave family ever written.

Liked:

  • There was some interesting information buried in the thick text. This was the first book I’ve ever read about the Hemingses or Jefferson, so everything was new to me and I have no other works to compare it to. In that regard, I can safely say I learned a lot about how the family interacted with Jefferson.

Disliked:

  • This book was just waaaay too long and boring. I listened to the audiobook version and some parts were so dull that I ended up surfing around the Internet and going to sites like http://www.dietpillsideeffects.com/myoripped/ instead of paying attention to what I was hearing. Ugh, I don’t think I would have finished this if I were reading a traditional paper-bound version.
  • The author repeated herself SO much that I wanted to scream!!! How many times did we have to hear about the naming conventions of enslaved people? How many times did we have to hear that slavery was a horrific institution? How many times did we have to hear how awkward it must have been for Jefferson and the Hemingses since they were related through Jefferson’s wife Martha? The book could have easily been pared down if these repetitive references were removed.
  • There was far too much speculation in this book. Not much is known about Sally Hemings because there simply isn’t enough epistolary or documentary evidence regarding her life. But that shouldn’t give the author license to speculate endlessly about what Hemings “must” have felt about Jefferson or what she “might” have eaten in France when she was sick, etc. etc. After all, this book was categorized as history, not historical fiction.
  • I felt that the author talked down to the reader a lot. Even the simplest concepts were explained so thoroughly (ad nauseam, really) that she must have thought very little about the intellectual capabilities of her audience.

Rating:

I was looking forward to an interesting account about Jefferson’s life with various members of the Hemings family. While this book delivered in some areas, it simply didn’t work as a whole. It was too long, too boring, too speculative, and too tiresome for my tastes. I give it 1 star out of 5.

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