That's Professor Genius to you: Annette Gordon-Reed wins MacArthur grant

Can things get any better if you’re Annette Gordon-Reed?  I guess a new job at Harvard and a National Book Award, and a Pulizer Prize for her latest book, The Hemingses of Monticello:  An American Family weren’t enough–she won a 2010 “genius grant!” 

I remember reading Gordon-Reed’s first book about Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:  An American Controversy(1997) back when it was first published, and being completely impressed by her thoroughness and doggedness.  She not only came to her conclusions (later ratified by the DNA evidence) about Hemings’ long-term liaison and motherhood of most of Jefferson’s children through old-fashioned historical methodology, this law professor out-historianed the historians by showing in excruciating detail how the historians had colluded for two hundred years in lying about Hemings, trying to erase the evidence, and perpetuating every ugly stereotype about African American women ever imagined.  When I have used that book in undergraduate classes, it’s always her exposure of the racist and sexist assumptions of white Jefferson scholars and biographers that makes the deepest and most shocking impression on the students.  Suddenly, they’re thrown into an epistemological crisis–how do they know what they know, and how much of it is built on prejudice and lies?  Previously confident History majors start questioning the ideological foundations of what they think they know about American history.

This epistemological crisis was too much for some historians.  I remember being at the Huntington Library on a summer fellowship in 2002, and somehow Gordon-Reed’s book came up in a conversation with a very elderly white male scholar.  He sputtered and blurted that her work was totally and completely without merit, and that he and dozens of other Jefferson scholars were going to publish a shocking rebuttal to her entire book that would finally set the record straight.  I nodded and ended the conversation quickly–wondering at the proposed collection of essays, who would contribute to it, and how anyone could assail her meticulous and lawerly arguments.  (Well, needless to say, no such volume ever appeared that I know of, and the one book that purports to demolish Gordon-Reed’s analysis has received–shall we say with charity?–decidedly mixed reviews.)

Congratulations to Professor Gordon-Reed.  I hope she lives it up!  Because living well is the best revenge.

0 thoughts on “That's Professor Genius to you: Annette Gordon-Reed wins MacArthur grant

  1. Yay for her! And: that’s such a great story about your teaching, and your students thrown into crisis by having their easy certainties shattered. I love it! Those moments — too rare in my experience — are always so gratifying, and if Gordon-Reed’s book is the catalyst for it, then my pleasure in her win is enhanced!


  2. Whoo-hoo!

    I heard an interview with her this morning, and she’s apparently now embarking on a (revisionist?) biography of Jefferson himself, based on the more general questions that her own research on Hemmings raised.


  3. Yay! I do realize that my enjoyment of these successes reveals revenge fantasies that I rarely admit to. And you’ve given me some good thoughts for my historiography class next spring…


  4. Fantastic,’cause the Macarthur is a prize that is really worth getting.

    Just two weeks ago I was surfing back and forth across some PBS hagiography of TJ and Monticello. Unluckily my clicking happened to catch an indignant non dead white male historian talking about Jefferson and Hemmings. The gist was “Even if it were true, which of course it has been proved not to be……” What the hell ? Who edits these things ? I figured the affair was all accepted as pretty much gospel at this point.


  5. In addition to all his fabulous research, Gordon Wood is great with the undergraduates at Brown University. He is a worthy recipient of this award.


  6. Heh–funny link, MM. “Does no one know who Gordon Wood is?”

    And Fratguy: Gordon-Reed is the reason most people accept the truth about Sally Hemings! (But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still self-styled “defenders,” as though having a family with an enslaved mistress was something unusual for Jefferson’s time.)


  7. Another biography of Washington is exactly what got reviewed in the _NYT_ today, nearly opposite the space where the paper announced the latest genius crop. The gist of the new book is that while Washington has been seen as a highly opaque and impenetrable historical personna (there’s a new insight) he can now actually be better understood in light of all the new stuff appearing in vols. XX through YY of the Washington Papers project. The reviewer seemed moderately skeptical.

    When did the re-jigger the MacArthur monetary formula? It used to be engineered to pay higher stipends the older you were by the time you stumbled into the genius category (or by the time their scouts found you out). Now everybody gets a flat 100K a year for five years. If the Harvard Overhead Recapture Commission zooms in for its customary cut, she’ll be “living it up” on AirTran coach on research trips for the next book. Whoops, they just got scooped up too!

    Historiann, was this old sputtering gent a resident of what used to be colloquially called “I.V. Row,” in the upstairs very back stacks, the last time I was out in Pasa-Marino?


  8. I’m glad that Gordon-Reed has emerged triumphant in the Jefferson-Hemings debate, but I’m really disappointed to hear the subject of her current research. Her first book on Hemings was terrific, but I found The Hemingses of Monticello underwhelming: it seemed like a repository for excess information that hadn’t made it into the first book. And now she’s writing a book on Jefferson? Why do we need another biography of Jefferson? I’m disappointed that that is the project that the MacArthur grant is funding.


  9. @ Kelly The information in THOM could not have been a “repository for excess information that hadn’t made it into” Tom and Sally for the simple reason that I didn’t have the information. Although Tom and Sally made use of lots of primary material and original research, the bulk of the book was a critique of the scholarly writings about TJ and SH; none of that critique was rehashed in THOM. I didn’t spend roughly 2000 through 2008 spinning out stuff cut from a book I wrote in 1997. : )

    As for why we need a new TJ biography– we don’t have a full biography that is at all suitable for modern times. The basic narrative of his life was set in the 19th century by Henry Randall. Dumas Malone built upon that starting in the 1940s, and his six-volume set has been considered definitive. It is not. The institution of slavery in Virginia, TJ as a slaveholder, and slavery at Monticello are almost non-existent in the volumes. We have so much more information about slavery in his era and in the Chesapeake than was available even 15 years ago. That stuff needs to be incorporated into TJ’s story. Information about whole sections of his life at Monticello simply have not been gathered together and analyzed. After Malone and Peterson, we’ve had books that focus on aspects of his life– “Jefferson and this”, “Jefferson and that”. No one has gone back from the beginning and brought the full force of the modern historiography of slavery, gender, and class to the study of this guy’s life. Moreover, our sensibilities have changed. We live in a time when black people are actually thought to be full human beings and those who write about us are supposed to recognize that. That was not true in the past, which is what my first book was about. THOM was an attempt to do that: to tell a story of a black family as if they were fully human. What is left to write about Jefferson? Almost everything.


  10. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Annette. Your success means a great deal to a lot of historians!

    While this blog likes to rip on “yet another biography of a founding father,” I think you make a great case that no one has written a feminist-womanist-antiracist bio of Jefferson, or of any founding father. What I learned from your 1997 book was that there is a vast divide between the social and cultural historians who work on the 18th-19th C Chesapeake, and Jefferson biographers. (At least, the divide was brought into stark relief–maybe that’s true of most other historians v. biographers of the so-called founding fathers.) So a biography that would bridge that gap and incorporate all of the insights you describe above would be valueable.


  11. I understand and agree that “founders chic”, as it has been called, is often tedious and, sometimes, extremely problematic. But, I guess it’s like anything; it’s what you do with the material that counts. Something that seems very old and played out can be made new if done the right way–if you ask questions about the material that others have not asked or notice important things that others have not noticed.

    For instance,Virginia Scharff has a new book about the women in TJ’s life coming out in October. It is excellent and creative. There are new things and familiar things showcased in a new light. Just what is needed.

    As for stopping by, I stop by all the time. I just decided not to lurk when the topic was me!


  12. Thanks for the tip about Scharff’s book–I’ll look for it. I teach an American women’s history course to 1800, and am always on the lookout for innovative new books. (Esp. on AA women, where the lit. is much thinner pre-1800 than that on European or Indian women.)


  13. Historiann what a compliment and testament to the depth of your blog that Annette Gordon-Reed not only visits here but comments. It feels great having access to this blog.

    Hi, AGR! Love your work.


  14. Dickens Reader (and all)–I’m getting the impression that this blog gets read in much more important departments than mine. Every time I run into a bigshot in my field (or an allied field), they tell me they’re readers. I’m a little abashed and surprised to hear it, but I think they mean it as a compliment/encouragement. I assume the lurkers whom I’ve offended or pi$$ed off don’t want to let me know they’re lurking.

    But, I just thought the rest of you should know. Important people with important jobs are watching! That may excite or trouble you, YMMV. (And AGR is unusual in that she has commented here. Most of the bigshots are just lurkers, no matter how much I bait them to respond!)


  15. I stopped by this morning, and I’m so glad I came back tonight and caught the conversation with AGR! I’m scheduled to discuss THOM with grad students on Friday. I’ve taught it in a couple of contexts now, and it has been a real success with students.

    This MacArthur is definitely well-deserved, but has anyone else observed that the number of historians making the list seems to be dwindling?


  16. I think the MacArthur Foundation was remiss in naming Annette Gordon-Reed as a recipent for an award. I also think the other foundations, book publishers, especially Norton, are remiss in not investigating whether Mrs. Gordon-Reed has PROOF to back up her charges that Jefferson fathered Hemings children. She along with Monticello, the History Channel and other “know it alls” have NO proof that he fathered Hemings children. Please read the Scholars Commission Report (13 prominent scholars)from, NO proof to these rumors.

    Dr Foster, of whom I assisted, insured a match when he tested a KNOWN carrier of both Jefferson and Hemings DNA. The Eston Hemings family always claimed descent from “a Jefferson uncle or nephew”, NOT Thomas. Sure there would be a match, I told him to tell Nature Journal……HE refused and coordinated with them to issue a FALSE headline, Jefferson fathers slave’s last child. Yes, I have the e-mails from both.

    The FIASCO was further extended to Monticello where an African-American oral slave specialist was appointed by Dan Jordan, Monticello President, to Chair their DNA Study. Dr Ken Wallenborn, an employee of Monticello at the time, wrote a “Minority Report”, critical opf the bias on this group, which was not published originally by Monticello and “swept under the rug” until I found out about this “slight of hand” and complained to then Chairman, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Brenton Halsey. Dan would then apologize to Dr Wallenborn and publish the Minority Report on his web page. Monticello would then “remove” “memorial” from their title………may we not wonder who they are now memorializing.

    Herb Barger
    Founder Thomas Jefferson Society


  17. Mamie, well played.
    Mr Barger, exactly what would constitute “proof”, for you, that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemming’s children?
    So much of the debate concerning this paternithy controversy is framed in the context of a court case. Yet the principals repeatedly forget that a trial is decided by the jury, not the litigants. You claim there is no proof, but the jury returning to the court of public opinion would argue otherwise.


  18. I haven’t heard AGR’s work discussed from a feminist perspective: Historiann, could you elaborate? I’d be curious to hear you riff on this a bit. Meanwhile, I’ll join the chorus of congratulations. One of my FB friends wrote, “The Genius Award comes home to history!” …which I quite like.


  19. BC–I’m surprised to hear that you haven’t heard Gordon-Reed’s work discussed from a feminist perspective, since it’s clearly feminist work! What her books did for me, as a young white feminist of the 1990s reared on Catherine MacKinnon, was to force me to consider the possibility that the Jefferson-Hemings relationship might not have been entirely, always coerced, and that it might have been a loving relationship although embedded in structures that make it impossible to call it a “partnership.”

    Whereas white feminists in the 1990s were focused on the structural inequalities embedded in heterosexuality (and certainly magnified x1000 by institutions like slavery), Gordon-Reed made compelling arguments for the possibility that Jefferson might have loved Hemings, and that that possibility is what might really be disturbing people like Herbert Barger. (Moreso than the notion of Jefferson as a rapist or child molester, anyway.)


  20. Following up on Historiann’s comment, I think that one of the parts of THOM that struck me the most (having taught it a couple of times now) was the subtlety and humane-ness of the analysis of how power worked (not just in the form of race, but wealth/class, age, gender, and legal status, even fame, education, and sensibility could be forms of power); Gordon-Reed was able to make perfectly clear how pervasive and fundamentally these aspects of power shaped human relations (not just TJ-SH, and not just interracial relations, but all others as well) while retaining a sense of the importance of the individuals themselves, the uniqueness of the decisions they faced, and the emotional content of these decisions. While many others have also declared their intent to treat black men and women as complete human actors, with emotional lives as rich and contradictory as those of the most famous dead white men, I don’t think anyone has actually done so as well as Gordon-Reed.

    I only wish I could figure out a way to use the book with undergrads, because it’s very accessible despite its sophistication, and I think they’d learn a lot from the careful and open way in which Gordon-Reed builds her interpretation. But I think an abridged edition might not be able to do justice to the whole point of the work…

    Maybe I should just offer a class solely on the TJ-SH topic. Here in Virginia, I’d bet it would draw.


  21. Oh, my ignorance is just about limitless, why bother with surprise? But JJO helps to illustrate what I mean–usually discussions of AGR start with race (and the perils of Founder-worship). I wanted to hear what her work sounds like if you start with a gender analysis instead. So, thanks! Both of these last two comments were really helpful.


  22. So, out with it! Who was that male in the stacks of the Huntington? Readers want to know!
    And why is Gay Prof posting here but not on Center of Gravitas, where he is much missed?

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Honestly, I don’t remember his name. His name didn’t register with me at the time, and since his promised volume demolishing Gordon-Reed’s work never appeared, I can’t look it up. All I remember is that he worked at a carrel in the open basement stacks.


  24. ‘In Defense of Thomas Jefferson’ Debunks Jefferson-Slave Sex Scandal
    The belief that Thomas Jefferson had an affair and fathered a child (or children) with slave Sally
    Hemings—and that such an allegation was proven by DNA testing—has become so pervasive in American popular culture that it is not only widely accepted but taught to students as historical fact. But as William G. Hyland, Jr., demonstrates, this “fact” is nothing more than the
    accumulation of salacious rumors and irresponsible scholarship over the years, much of it inspired by political grudges, academic opportunism, and the trend of historical revisionism that seeks to drag the reputation of the Founding Fathers through the mud. In this startling new book, Hyland shows not only that the evidence against Jefferson is lacking, but in fact he is entirely
    innocent of the charge of having sexual relations with Hemings.

    A “thorough survey of the scholarly and scientific literature … Mr. Hyland, a lawyer, presents the historical record carefully and, closer to our day, provides marvelous details of the scholarly empire-building and grantsmanship that go into making ‘fact’ out of limited evidence — in this case and others. By the end of ‘In Defense of Thomas Jefferson,’ it is hard not to conclude that, given the revisionist impulses of American
    historians today, Jefferson should have put pen to paper after all,” says Thomas Lipscomb, The Wall Street


  25. As a librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society I happened to see an advance review copy we were sent of a book of essays supposedly “defending” Jeffersonby arguing it was impossible that he had a relationship with Sally Hemings. Aside from all of its myriad scholarly problems, what struck me most about the volume was its overall tone; the idea that suggesting Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings somehow tarnishes his character. And that it is our patriotic duty to protect the “image” of these iconic men of American history from … what? The possible (and fairly well-established evidential fact) that a white man slept with a black woman? That they had children together? That a former president had a non-marital sexual relationship with someone after his wife’s death?

    I’m really confused and frustrated by the controversial nature of Gordon-Reed’s exhaustively documented, beautifully argued case. What about it is so upsetting to its detractors? The idea that people in the past led complicated lives?


  26. All of that, plus racism plus ressentiment that an African American woman dared take on the Jefferson establishment and beat them at their own game.

    Many people still believe in the Great Chain of Being a la John Winthrop. They think seeing and writing history from the point of view of an enslaved woman is by definition illegitimate. They believe that history should be about (as the title of my old children’s World Book put it) Great Men and Famous Deeds.

    We should welcome their hatred and resentment. If we don’t earn it, maybe we’re not doing history correctly.


  27. Thanks, Annette, for the shout-out. I’m really impressed with the scope and quality of discussion on this blog, and will be a regular reader from now on. Annette’s work, and that of Cinder Stanton at Monticello and Susan Kern at William and Mary have given us so many new insights into Jefferson. I hope to make a contribution with my book, THE WOMEN JEFFERSON LOVED, coming out Oct. 26. I honestly think the time has come to stop arguing about whether Sally Hemings, and for that matter, all the women Jefferson cared about most, mattered in his life. Now it’s time to ask how they mattered, not simply for his private experience, but for his grand public legacy.


  28. This may be coming a little late in the action of this posting but incredibly strong academic, Shannon Lee Dawdy, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago also received the MacArthur grant this year. Her work has done great things for New Orleans but her focus on the mutability of gender categories and stereotypes in early French colonial Louisiana is particularly fascinating!


  29. One of the moments that led to my going on to the doctorate was thanks to AGR. A well-respected prof of mine recommended that I read “this amazing new book!” The book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” was one I’d heard of but what startled me was that this impressive scholar and old-family Virginia gentleman was raving about its importance in the hallway. This was the same man who in senior seminar the year before had dismissed such talk about his hero (and somehow distantly related kinsman) as “just not something he would do—it went on, certainly, but Jefferson just wouldn’t.”

    He loaned me his copy, insisted that I read it and come and tell him what I thought. I did and found out that he was even a better scholar than I already thought he was. I got a great dissection of the book at a level I hadn’t experienced before and, even better, learned a lot about what he called “facing up to your own biases, received ‘wisdom,’ and the importance of always keeping your mind open.” So, enjoy that MacArthur Prof. Gordon-Reed and thanks for the inadvertant professional training as well!


  30. Wow–that’s quite a story, ga. Thanks for stopping by, Virginia Scharff and CMG. It’s clear that Gordon-Reed’s work is innovative and widely appreciated–even career-making or career-changing!


  31. Annette Gordon-Reed, who will be our Film Festival post-screening guest for Amistad, October 19, just received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, more commonly known as the “genius grant,” given each year to 20 people in various fields of excellence in the sciences, arts, and humanities. She is Professor of Law and Professor of History at Harvard and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe. She won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, about Sally Hemings’ relationship with Thomas Jefferson and the descendants of their union. We are thrilled for Professor Gordon-Reed, and we know that our audience will appreciate hearing a recent MacArthur winner speak on the stage of the Film Festival.


  32. Pingback: Annette Gordon-Reed and the Jefferson-Hemings Relationship « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

  33. When I realized that Annette Gordon Reed had written a second novel on her analysis of the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings saga, I admit that I did wonder why. After reading her explanation, I do admire her reasons. She stated that she needed to relate the story in a dignified manner on behalf of those who basically had their dignity stolen away from them.

    It is impressive that even before the DNA test results were made public, Annette Gordon Reed presented a convincing argument that Thomas Jefferson may have been the father of Sally Hemings’s children despite a very hostile environment at the time.

    What fascinates me about some that oppose the idea that Jefferson could be the father of these children is the obsession they have with presenting the same stagnated, and often somewhat ridiculous argument.

    To imply that at 65, Jefferson could not father a child due to his advanced age and alleged disabilities (Charlie Chaplin fathered a child at 74) seems unrealistic.

    Some of the naysayers insist on referring to the refusal of Madison Hemings’s descendants to exhume Madison’s son William for DNA testing. If they have ever included in their research an observation of the online images of Madison Hemings’s grandchildren, then it is obvious that they have refused to acknowledge the uncanny resemblance of his descendants to Thomas Jefferson. Such a remarkable resemblance would seem to increase the likelihood of a Jefferson lineage. This makes the Carr argument seem like an act of desperation.

    To imply that his impeccable character would prevent him from engaging in an affair with Sally Hemings when he was known to have made inappropriate advances to a best friend’s wife and have an illicit liaisons with another married woman, seems like self-righteous denial.

    The arguments which attempt to present him as a compassionate slave owner are legitimate when it is considered he at one time proposed legislation to call for the abolition of slavery. However, his actions later in his life resulting in him hunting down runaway slaves, offering rewards for them, and having them whipped seems to emphasize that he was a complicated man full of contradictions.

    Many of his defenders tend to routinely criticize the people at Monticello for presenting his faults alleged, or factual, but will never seem to give credit to the good work that the people at Monticello do of promoting the good things he did in life. I think when one leaves Monticello they have an overwhelming appreciation for the contributions he made to the country.

    However, Despite the efforts of Monticello and others to present a balanced argument, it seems as though some of his defenders will never cease to continue being obsessed with presenting a redundant argument which due to its foundation of bitterness and denial seems to prevent a qualitative approach.

    The reason why Annette Gordon Reed has earned the pulitzer on her latest analysis of this subject matter is because of the quality of her presentation.
    I can appreciate a good argument, whether I agree or disagree and Annette Gordon Reed gives one. Congratulations on the Pulitzer.


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