Annette Gordon-Reed ’84 won the Pulitzer Prize in History last week for her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The same book had already won a National Book Award last year, and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Gordon-Reed, a graduate of Dartmouth College who was on Law Review at Harvard, holds professorships in law at New York Law School and in history at Rutgers University, Newark.
The book was the culmination of many years of research into possible affairs between Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, which began with Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, published in 1997. Gordon-Reed says she has been fascinated by Jefferson since she read a biography of him as a child. In The Hemingses of Monticello, she was able to deconstruct assumptions made by historians and biographers as to whether Jefferson’s liaisons with slaves were actually rumors meant to ruin his political reputation. Instead, she claims to show that Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings probably did have some sort of sexual relationship.
Gordon-Reed is the second HLS alumnus in two years to receive the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, bestowed by Columbia University for achievement in journalism, literature, and the arts since 1912. Last year, John Matteson ’86 won in the biography category for his book Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Family. Later that year, Matteson penned a piece in the New York Times about his experiences at HLS, where he wrote that he met his intellectual limits, allowing him to explore his true passion, literature. Like Gordon-Reed, Matteson teaches at a small New York legal institution, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Historically, HLS graduates have been no strangers to the Pulitzer. National Security Council member and Samantha Power ’99 won for general nonfiction in 2003, James B. Stewart ’76 won for explanatory journalism while working for the Wall Street Journal in 1988, and short story writer James Alan McPherson LL.B. ’68 won for literature in 1978. Poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish ’19 actually won two Pulitzers for his modernist poetry – in 1933 and 1953 – and one for his playwriting in 1959.
Unlike Matteson, Gordon-Reed knew she was interested in history all along, pursuing law school when it seemed that jobs for history PhDs were hard to come by. Still, she says, it had always been a dream to move to New York and become a famous writer. None of this will deter Gordon-Reed from returning to HLS next fall, where she will be teaching a history-oriented version of the Legal Profession course.