Figuring Out Jefferson

This being the week of President’s Day, we thought we would ask one of our favorite authors, Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, about her recent reading on the third president.

Q: We at UVA Press, along with Maurizio Valsania, were delighted to learn that you were reading his latest book, The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson’s Dualistic Enlightenment. How did you come to his work?

Gordon-Reed: My good friend Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia had read the book in manuscript and suggested I read it.

Q: Jefferson is well known as an enlightenment thinker. Did anything in Valsania’s book surprise you?

Gordon-Reed: Well, it’s such a fresh take on Jefferson. It moves beyond the “He was a man of contradictions” approach. That is true, but as Valsania shows, a lot of what Jefferson says and does hangs together.

Q: You co-wrote the introduction to Monticello historian Cinder Stanton’s “Those Who Labor for My Happiness” with Peter Onuf. Can you elaborate on how you’ve learned from and collaborated with her in her research on the lives of Jefferson’s slaves?

Gordon-Reed: I showed up at Monticello with a first draft of my book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. I sat in her office and played what we came to call “20 questions” or sometimes more or less. I drew on her unparalleled knowledge of TJ and Monticello to answer questions I had about some of the things the historians I was writing about had said about life on the plantation.

She has been a good sounding board for my ideas and interpretations. We do not always agree, and that is good. It’s so much better with a give and take, especially with a person who is so knowledgeable. Everyone has an opinion, but all too often those opinions are formed without anything approaching a sufficient base of knowledge. Information—basic information—is key. But that takes work and long years of study—all things she has done. It has been great to learn from her.

Q: As you know, a Smithsonian exhibit opened in January on Jefferson and slavery. Do you feel that the popular reception to the exhibition will be significantly different than it would have been fifteen or twenty years ago, before you wrote Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings?

Gordon-Reed: Well, I do think the Hemings-Jefferson relationship is not so big a deal to people now that the people who are most knowledgeable about Jefferson have incorporated it into the story of his life. People now want to think about the implications of it all.

Q: In the Boston Globe recently, you said you find history books more “vivid and exciting” than novels, and there have been much-cited essays by novelists such as Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen on why American novelists don’t tackle big subjects. Do you think that big social novels are the answer, or is there some other reason why contemporary novels don’t grab your attention?

Gordon-Reed: I’m not sure that every book should be a “big social” novel.  I do like Wolfe, but more of his “new journalism,” the Wolfe of the 1970s. I suppose I’m just not as interested in the characters so much as I am interested in figures of history. I start reading and it’s fine. But then I wonder do I care enough about this person to continue? Most often, I answer no. I did love Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead; that held my interest—and as I said in the Globe interview, I do like Christopher Isherwood’s novels.  It’s not the novelists, though. It’s me.

Q: What’s next for you in terms of research and writing?

Gordon-Reed: I’m working with Peter Onuf on a book about Jefferson. I have another volume of the Hemings family saga. Then it’s on to a two-volume biography of Jefferson.