Well....what a first day of spring here in Oklahoma City. The view out of my window is white with swirls of snow. But it will be rushing towards the 90s and above soon enough, with a few tornadoes, hale and windstorms thrown in for good measure.
This Winter I actually did some seasonal reading. Several books kept my attention. If you have ever struggled over the difference between "it's", "its" and "its' " then Words Fail Me by Patricia O'Conner is the book for you. She's a advocate of clear, simple writing and gives very funny examples of how not to write. With a warm sense of humor, she is deeply sympathetic towards poor writers who suffer the trials and tribulations of trying to complete decent sentences, one after another.
I've been following with great interest the work of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates on ancestry, genealogy and DNA tracking presented in a series of PBS programs: African American Lives, and most recently, Faces of America. Professor Gates has done for culture and humanities what Steve Jobs has done for technology. Like Jobs, he has forever changed how we see the world and ourselves.
One of the great ancestral mysteries in American history is the story of Thomas Jefferson, our 3rd president, and his slave Sally Hemings, with whom he is said to have fathered seven children. It only remains a mystery for those who refuse to accept the paradox of Jefferson, a paradox that we still live today. It is perplexing how the author of the Declaration of Independence could be one the most prosperous slave holders of his day. But that is how it was. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Martha Wayles Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's deceased wife. That he would take Sally to his bed should come as no surprise given the proprietary nature of the institution of slavery. She was, after all, his property and said to have been extremely beautiful.
Annette Gordon-Reed has written a monumental book on the subject,
The Hemingses of Montcello: An American Family. Gordon-Reed is a researcher possessed and her scholarship has been greatly rewarded with every literary acknowledgement imaginable, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The unique aspect of the Hemings family is they were able to remain a cohesive unit in spite of being owned by several families over many generations. Gordon-Reed places the reader right in the middle of the life and times of the Hemings family as property of Thomas Jefferson, in the heady moments of America's struggle against England for its independence. The book is scholarly but wonderfully accessible. At over 900 pages (plus notes, bibliography and the index) I have a ways to go and do not want to finish it too soon.
This winter I've learned the value of "reading in the round." So, I am also reading The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, John Chester Miller's seminal work published in 1977 and finally Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family by Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman which brings together both the black and white descendants of Thomas Jefferson.
In 1787, Sally Hemings accompanied Thomas Jefferson's young daughter, Polly, to France where she remained there for 24 months. Historical records indicate that Jefferson purchased expensive clothing for Hemings and that she most likely attended galas and balls, though not accompanied by him, which would have caused a monumental political scandal. As American anvoy to France, Jefferson certainly would have been a highly sought after guest and her brother, James, a chef trained and certified in French cuisine, most certainly cooked for such events. Interestingly, this rare and aristocratic world had a parallel one referred to as the "demi-monde" or "half-world." It was distinguished by the same aristocrats - aristocratic men, at any rate - who paid top dollar in jewels, land, expensive horses and homes to keep the company of infamous courtesans who electrified both Paris and London with their lavish extravagances.
How fascinating that on the edges of the elite world of power and influence of the 18th and 19th century orbited another where, contrary to the women of proper pedigree, these female players were fiercely independent, opinionated and were highly sought after confidants. These women who generally rose from extreme poverty prided themselves on handling their own affairs - sexual, financial and otherwise. Katie Hickman explored these outrageous women who lived and traveled all over Europe in Courtesan: Money, Sex and Fame in the 19th Century. The book commences with Sophia Baddeley in 1770 and ends with the passing of Catherine Walters in 1920 and the end of the era.
So, there you have it. Next post: my latest music fascination.