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Author Discusses Books on Jefferson / New Work is on the Hemingses, a Slave Family He Owned

October 1, 2008

Annette Gordon-Reed had several things in mind when she began working on her latest book, the author and college professor told about 100 people yesterday at the Library of Virginia. Perpetuating the legend of Thomas Jefferson wasn’t chief among them, she told the crowd that had gathered to hear her speak two days before the release of her latest book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.”

Jefferson, she said, just happened to offer the best way into the story she wanted to tell.

His obsessive note-taking and record-keeping created a paper trail that helped Gordon-Reed research and tell the story of the Hemingses. The slaves, owned by Jefferson, mingled and traveled with him, and in the case of Sally Hemings, apparently mothered children by him. She was the subject a previous book by Gordon-Reed.

“The West sees the world through the eyes of the oppressed,” the author said. “But not with slaves. The things that were endemic to them, they had to prove it.

“Making that point was much more important than Tom and Sally, because there are thousands and thousands of Toms and Sallys across the South. I wanted to follow the lives of other people.”

Following the lives of the Hemings family was a veritable breeze, by 18th- and 19th-century standards, thanks to Jefferson’s penchant for recording seemingly every thought and occurrence during his 83 years.

Gordon-Reed, who teaches at Rutgers University and the New York University law school, said that for as long as she can remember, she’s had an interest in Jefferson. Earlier in her career, she wanted to simply write a biography of the third president.

“But you can’t just parachute in” to that assignment, she said.

“People will tell you, he’s three or four men rolled into one. I think it’s more like eight or nine. I thought I could make [a biography] more manageable if I could master one part of his life.”

That mastery has now stretched into two books, with at least one more in the works.

Contact Zachary Reid at (804) 775-8179 or zreid@timesdispatch.com.

ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO

Originally published by REID; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.

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