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When Pulitzer Prize winners were announced last month, works on American history that shed new light on slavery and its aftermath dominated the non-fiction awards. Raise the bar for your summer reading with these titles:
The Hemingses of Monticello : an American family by Annette Gordon-Reed.
“This is a scholar’s book: serious, thick, complex. It’s also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived. So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves’ lives and the nature of the choices they had to make—when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed’s genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work.” -Publisher’s weekly
Annette Gordon-Reed talks about The Hemingses of Monticello, on the occasion of the work’s nomination for the National Book Award (which it went on to win):
American lion : Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.
“Newsweek editor and bestselling author Meacham offers a lively take on the seventh president’s White House years. We get the Indian fighter and hero of New Orleans facing down South Carolina radicals’ efforts to nullify federal laws they found unacceptable, speaking the words of democracy even if his banking and other policies strengthened local oligarchies, and doing nothing to protect southern Indians from their land-hungry white neighbors. For the first time, with Jackson, demagoguery became presidential, and his Democratic Party deepened its identification with Southern slavery. Relying on the huge mound of previous Jackson studies, Meacham can add little to this well-known story, save for the few tidbits he’s unearthed in private collections rarely consulted before. What he does bring is a writer’s flair and the ability to relate his story without the incrustations of ideology and position taking that often disfigure more scholarly studies of Jackson.”-Publisher’s Weekly
Jon Meacham speaks at length about the work in the Authors@Google series:
“Wall Street Journal bureau chief Blackmon gives a groundbreaking and disturbing account of a sordid chapter in American history—the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to commercial interests between the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Usually, the criminal offense was loosely defined vagrancy or even changing employers without permission. The initial sentence was brutal enough; the actual penalty, reserved almost exclusively for black men, was a form of slavery in one of hundreds of forced labor camps operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small time entrepreneurs and provincial farmers. Into this history, Blackmon weaves the story of Green Cottenham, who was charged with riding a freight train without a ticket, in 1908 and was sentenced to three months of hard labor for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Cottenham’s sentence was extended an additional three months and six days because he was unable to pay fines then leveraged on criminals. Blackmon’s book reveals in devastating detail the legal and commercial forces that created this neoslavery along with deeply moving and totally appalling personal testimonies of survivors. Every incident in this book is true, he writes; one wishes it were not so.” -Publisher’s Weekly
Bill Moyers interviews Douglas A. Blackmon