Annette Gordon-Reed '81, professor of law at Harvard Law School, professor of history at Harvard University, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of the highly acclaimed biography The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The biography of the slave family owned by Thomas Jefferson won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. In September, Gordon-Reed was awarded a "genius" grant by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for work that "has dramatically changed the course of Jeffersonian scholarship." She shared a few thoughts about her work and Dartmouth with Diana Lawrence, communications director in Alumni Relations.
What was the most difficult part of the story for you to tell in The Hemingses of Monticello?
Attempting to write about the nature of Sally Hemings’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson was the hardest thing. There are such huge issues of gender and power in the story. But her circumstances were different—she lived for several years in France where she had the chance to take her freedom. How much do you take her uniqueness into account when you are writing about an enslaved woman and the man who owns her?
Did your work on the book change your own perception of Thomas Jefferson? How?
I think I developed a greater appreciation of the pressures he was under in his relations with his second family. This is not to say he wasn’t in control of an awful lot. But he had many competing demands with which to contend. I was forced to think about that in a more serious way than I had to before.
Not to play favorites, but which member of the Hemings family did you end up liking the most? Why?
James Hemings , I think, is my “favorite” Hemings. He lived such an extraordinary life, but died tragically as a suicide. I keep thinking what it must have been like to be so talented a person who was thwarted by the limitations of race and status during that time period.
What led you to choose Dartmouth College?
I wanted to go to a small place, not in a city. I also think I had this romantic notion about being away in college in New England.
Did your Dartmouth experience influence your teaching? In what ways?
It made me see the value of small classes in which students get to interact with their professors. That is very important.
You’re a member of the Dartmouth Alumni Council. What has that been like for you?
Well, it’s interesting to see how passionate and intense Dartmouth alums are about the College. I knew that, but you see it up close here with people who are willing to give their time and energy to the school.
This MacArthur grant gives you enormous creative freedom. To what will you turn your attention over the next five years?
I will complete the second volume of the Hemings saga and then turn my attention to what will probably be a multi-volume biography of Jefferson.