Thursday, July 02, 2009

Struggling Through to the End

Well, I finally finished it. It being Annette Gordon-Reed's exhaustive work The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

First, let me say--the premise of the work is fascinating and most worthy. Using primary sources, Gordon-Reed (G-R) explores the life and times of one extended family enslaved and owned by Thomas Jefferson. G-R goes further and proves decisively that Thomas Jefferson made one member of the Hemings' family--Sally--his mistress and, with her, fathered four children who lived to become adults.

So, why my "finally finished it" comment? You need a bit of history on my reading habits. I was an English literature major in college, both undergraduate and graduate. So, that meant lots, make that LOTS, of reading. And my first job, fresh out of graduate school, was returning to my college alma mater to teach literature--more reading. When I left that job, after 8 years, I vowed that I would never again spend time reading something that I was not enjoying.

This vow was accompanied by a full measure of guilt--stop reading a book? Unthinkable. Having been schooled to read so as to a) pass the exam, or b) analyze in class, or c) write the exam, I simply felt duty bound to read every book I started. And, for the most part, even after I stopped teaching, I tended to finish books I began reading.

The day finally came when I finished a book and suddenly realized--I have been duped. I read a book the whole way through, and I simply did NOT enjoy it. I should have quit. Truth is, I kept expecting SOMETHING to happen in the book. The book in question was Helen Hooven Santmyer's And Ladies of the Club. On the off chance you might be curious and decide you want to read it--don't. I have just saved you from 1,400 pages of NOTHING.

As I said, I kept expecting something to happen--but after 1,400 pages I realized that nothing did. And I was so put out at myself for not dropping the book part way through, that I renewed my vow.

So, now The Hemingses of Monticello. I finished this book. Oh, there were times that I felt like stopping. Why didn't I? Well, I had asked for the book as a Christmas present, for one thing. And I felt as though I would be ungrateful. I also recognized the importance of the subject of the book, evaluating people who were slaves and considering them on their merits. G-R has done fantastic historical research to recreate their lives.

You just know there is a "but"--don't you?

When I was about half way through the book, I told my husband about my frustrations with the author's style. As it happened, we were out at breakfast in a local diner. Seating there is not really private, and next to us sat a man, eating breakfast by himself. He obviously overheard my description. I said that G-R was a professor at one of the Ivy League schools. . .hhmm, Yale maybe? Well, the lone diner piped up--University of Rutgers. It turns out, he also taught there--though he said he had not met G-R. Small world. I hope he didn't rush back to campus, look her up, and say--a woman in a diner doesn't like your writing style, she thinks you need an editor.

So, here's my "but." To convey the concepts of what it was like to live as slaves, deprived of freedom, subject to the whims of masters--even those who were kindly, as Jefferson was--G-R tells you what it was like. Then, on the off-chance you didn't get it, she tells you again. And, for good measure, yet again.

If I could talk to a book, and have the message transmitted magically to the author--I would have said: I get it! Slavery was terrible. It was demeaning. It was dehumanizing. It is a stain on human history. I really do get it.

There were many interesting details in the work, lest you think I didn't learn anything from it. First, Sally Hemings, the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson, was the half sister of Jefferson's wife Martha. WOW! That means Martha's father, John Wayles, also fathered Sally. Second, Sally Hemings was sent to be with Jefferson in Paris, when at the time she was fourteen years old. Their nearly 40 year relationship began in Paris. When Jefferson was due to return home, apparently, Sally Hemings--and her brother who was also there--contemplated staying there. France did not have slavery so they could have become free people. Sally's son, years after, indicated that the reason she did return with Jefferson is that she was pregnant with her first child, and she wrung from Jefferson a promise to free their children.

Again, WOW! The crafter of our Declaration of Independence fathered children who by virtue of their births would be slaves. And, he had to be made to promise to free his own children--not upon birth, mind, but upon reaching majority.

So much for "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

OK--so, in totality, it was a good book to read. Sometimes it pays off to keep on slogging.


Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

When you read for information it is easier to abandon a book once you grasp the main argument.
Some such books are so well structured you can read a book by just reading the opening and closing paragraphs of each chapter. There are several other ways of "reading" a book without reading every word. As one who never mastered speed reading, I had to learn other reading tricks to get the best out a book.

It is too bad that a book about such an interesting subject of human interest turned out to be so plodding. Perhaps, in the future a more skilled writer will take up the subject.

Jayne said...

You are a much more dedicated reader than me Donna. I have started some books that I just simply felt annoyed reading and had to put them down. You are to be commended for your perseverance!

Anvilcloud said...

I have a few books on the go but not terribly on the go right now. A book on the Celts has a ton of info -- basically name after name. Sigh.

NCmountainwoman said...

I'm glad you reviewed this because I had planned to purchase it. One would think the author would understand that the audience for this book would not need constant repetition in order to understand the salient points.

Climenheise said...

A basic difficulty in evaluating someone like Jefferson is the fact that we see from our 21st century perspective. You note the way that the crafter of the declaration of independence had to be forced to promise freedom to his own child. So far from mitigating or weakening the declaration, this fact can create greater appreciation that Jefferson and others, living in a world that did not see people in the way that we do, were able to break through to the kind of statement encapsulated in the declaration.

Thank you for yourself encapsulating the book, so that we get the benefit without wondering why we're still reading! I do think that reporting original sources (as yo said this book does) is harder than writing a clear account on the basis of someone else's work. So maybe you need to do the readable follow-up that makes this stuff available more creatively?

KGMom said...

Daryl--I quite agree about seeing with 21st century eyes. In fact, I kept wondering--how did it come to be that one group of people failed to see another group of people as HUMAN.

As for working with primary sources, true. The one frustration I had with Annette G-R is that she would infer the existence of something from the SILENCE of the primary source. I felt that was a bit of a jump.

I enjoyed working with primary sources when I wrote our grandparent's biography. But, the caution is always there.

Care said...

I like your reviewing style. :)