As a grad student, one’s life is composed almost entirely with books. While all books are at least in some part formative of how one thinks and understands one’s field, most are somewhat forgettable beyond the pages of notes taken for future reference. However, every once in a while there’s a book that not only stands out from the rest but leaves a deep impression on how one views the historical craft. For me, Annette Gordon-Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008) is one of those books.
Hemingses of Monticello is a family biography that follows the descendents of Elizabeth Hemings for nearly a century. Though a slave family, complexity and unique circumstances made their experiences difficult to simplify or categorize. Gordon-Reed deftly follows several family members through multiple environments, utilizing a deep understanding of the surrounding context in order to fill in numerous details. And when I say that there were details that needed to be filled in, that is an understatement. Gordon-Reed wrote about a family that left almost no records themselves. In a way, she became so immersed in the context that she was painting a portrait by filling in all the surroundings first, or creating a picture from a negative. She was successful, too. The book received almost every major award, both in scholarly and popular circles. It is a must-read for understanding many themes of the 18th and early 19th century: slave culture, race relations, Parisian life, and even the contradictory mind of Thomas Jefferson. It opened my eyes to new avenues of historical methodology, encouraged me to be a better historian, and validated my belief that historical works are worthwhile and provide insights into the human experience.
I wonder, though, whether Mormon history is collectively conditioned to embrace such a book—at least not yet—for two reasons.
The first reason is Gordon-Reed’s refusal to be mired down with some of the controversial aspects that have bogged down previous works on the Hemings family. Most significantly, she takes as fact the sexual relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. (It should be noted that Gordon-Reed had previously devoted a book to the issue.) While a majority of scholars have accepted as much for at least a decade, the issue is still hotly debated—especially by some factions of the Thomas Jefferson Family Association. By sidestepping this issue—the only time she really addresses the controversy is in a footnote—she is able to move forward in her narrative and answer more pertinent questions.
I have some doubts whether such an approach would fly with many within Mormon history circles. We often become obsessed with controversies that, when viewed from a larger perspective, don’t really matter. We feel obligated to settle the debates over when the First Vision occurred, what year the Melchezidek Priesthood was restored, or the exact amount of wives Joseph Smith had, just to name a few examples. These can be important questions, of course, but they can become a red herring that distracts us from other issues and forbids us from moving on to more intriguing topics. Though some progress has been made of late, it will be interesting to see if the trend continues.
The second aspect of Hemingses of Monticello that could be tough to incorporate is one of the key aspects of Gordon-Reed’s methodology itself, as outlined in her introduction:
Historians often warn against the danger of “essentializing” when making statements about people of the past—positing an elemental human nature that can be discerned and relied upon at all times and in all places. Warnings notwithstanding, there are, in fact, some elements of the human condition that have existed forever, transcending time and place. If there were none, and if historians did not try to connect to those elements (consciously or unconsciously), historical writing would be simply incomprehensible…Therefore, we should not be afraid to call upon what we know in general about mothers, fathers, families, male-female relationships, power relationships, the contours of life in small closely knit communities, as we try to see the Hemingses in the context of their own time and place. (31-32)
Anyone who has read the book knows that Gordon-Reed wasn’t shy about essentializing throughout the text. While I was somewhat hesitant at first, worried that a presentist misstep would appear at any moment, I actually found this approach quite liberating. By using her sources to not only answer questions about historical context but also to explore issues of the human psyche, the story became not only fascinating but also profoundly relevant. This was the type of work that reaffirmed my belief that history mattered.
Again, I have reservations aboout whether Mormon historians would be accepting of such an approach. Mormon historians love focusing on facts, sticking to details, proving (often in tedious detail) minute data, and eschewing generalizations. Perhaps due to the significance of the events to believing members—or perhaps to the sometimes novice-nature of Mormon history—LDS historians want everything proven, and anything that is not bedrock solid is dismissed as “speculative.” This is, of course, an important perspective to remember, because history should not stray too far from the documents—our only solid connection to the past. However, when the stakes are so high, and the battle lines often so firmly drawn, it is difficult to make interpretive and imaginative leaps, even for a scholar so entrenched in the historical context and details as Annette Gordon-Reed. As a result, we are often left debating the same points, rarely broadening our interpretive frameworks, missing out on important insights, and running around the same historiographical circles.
What I am left wondering is whether these are existential problems inherent in Mormon history (since Mormonism is believed by many, it is too potent a topic for these kind of approaches), or whether it is a reflection on the developing nature of Mormon studies, and that it will improve once the field matures (the current research of Laurel Ulrich and Kathleen Flake, among others, gives hope that the latter is the case).
Or, perhaps I am just being pessimistic.