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THE HAIRSTONS by Henry Wiencek

THE HAIRSTONS

An American Family in Black and White

By Henry Wiencek

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-19277-0
Publisher: St. Martin's

A look at the largest slaveholders in the South and black and white families they spawned. Once they ruled over a pre—Civil War kingdom that spanned 45 plantations spread out over four states and included 10,000 slaves. To keep it all intact, they did what European aristocracy did: they married their own. And as one might imagine, this created a huge and maddeningly complex genealogical configuration, hard to decipher, to say the least. Undaunted, Wiencek, hwo has written for Smithsonian and American Heritage magazines, has spent eight years unraveling the mystery of the Hairstons (pronounced Harston), said to be “the largest family in America.” What Wiencek has turned up is nothing if not intriguing, including aspects which are worthy of further exploration. But perhaps not wishing to appear sensational nor to feed prurient interests, he has gone in the opposite direction, taken a subdued approach to his subject that often has the effect of heavy sedation. Wiencek says his research points up that the family touched every aspect of American endeavor from Hollywood to Wall Street and from the coal fields of West Virginia to Europe during WWII. And that may be true. But his approach is so very genteel that it’s easy to miss key elements, including some that read like something out of William Faulkner. Amid these huge plantations, for example, are unacknowledged children of their masters who become enslaved butlers, servants, and housekeepers, or children who were forced to keep their mother’s maiden name to disguise their heritage. Wiencek does not have a dramatic flair for language, making this a very slow read indeed. But those with an interest in the subject will tough out this eerily fascinating account. (Author tour)