Bienstock releases collection of late wife’s work, “Family, Slavery, and Love in the Early American Republic: The Essays of Jan Ellen Lewis”

Allison Markman, Staff Writer

History teacher Barry Bienstock published his newest book, “Family, Slavery, and Love in the Early American Republic: The Essays of Jan Ellen Lewis,” this October. The book is a collection of thirteen essays by his late wife, Professor Jan Ellen Lewis, contributing to the fields of gender, slavery, the Constitution, and Jefferson studies, while also helping to develop the field of the history of emotions.

The book received positive recognition for its excellent historical analysis and important insights, Bienstock said. Lapham’s Quarterly ran an excerpt from the book and Book Authority listed it as second out of the 33 most influential and important books about slavery that must be read in 2022. 

Professor Lewis helped shape many developing fields of history, Bienstock said. She was among the first to write about the history of emotions, he said.

Bienstock wanted to publish the book not only to honor his wife, but also as something for his grandchildren to remember her by. “One of the things that most distressed my wife when she got her terminal diagnosis was that her granddaughters would grow up not remembering her, so this book is dedicated to them,” he said. “My hope is as they get older, it gives them a direct connection to her.”

Bienstock is excited that the book is finally published and completed, as he has been working on it since 2019. “It’s a strange feeling because it’s out there in the world, and I’m just going to see what the reaction is,” he said. So far, seeing the public’s reaction has been gratifying, he said.

“People have told me how beautiful the book is and how excited they are to read essays that they had not known about,” Bienstock said. “I was pleased to see the book excerpt published in ‘Lapham’s Quarterly,’ and I was thrilled that Book Authority identified the book as a ‘must read’ book on slavery.”

The book is organized into four sections: Gender in the Early American Republic, The History of Emotions, Constitutional and Legal History, and Thomas Jefferson Studies. The framing essays for each section were written by renowned historians Carolyn Eastman, Nicole Eustace P’ 24, David Waldsteicher, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Peter S. Onuf, he said. 

“Rather than being simply compartmentalized into one field of gender studies or race, she looked at the entire field of the early national period and the influence that politics, gender, race, and the Constitution, all had together,” Bienstock said.

In 2019, Bienstock reached out to publishers to begin the publishing process. Signing the book contract was thrilling for Bienstock because he felt like it was the right time to publish Lewis’ work, he said. “It’s a really prestigious publisher,” he said. “They do only seven or eight books a year, and they put a lot of care and attention into the quality of their books. The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in conjunction with the University of North Carolina Press is known in the profession of producing some of those important books in American history.”

Many of the historians Bienstock chose to write the framing essays attended a session of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in 2019, an event where Bienstock suggested scholars to discuss Lewis’ research, he said. “Those were the people who later contributed the framing essays for the book. They are people who are distinguished historians – who I knew really appreciated Jan’s scholarship,” he said.

It was not difficult for Bienstock to find the material Lewis had created, because she wrote so much, he said. Instead, the process became about narrowing all the essays down. “She had published a lot over the years and written a lot,” he said. “So it was winnowing it down to ultimately what we thought were the best of those articles and they came down to 13.”

Tracking down all of the sources Lewis used to ensure proper citation was one of the more challenging aspects of the process, Beinstock said. “The publisher wanted to double check everything before it was published. That meant I also had to go through her files and see her handwriting and the meticulous notes she took as she was doing her research.”

Through the process, Bienstock re-familiarized himself with all of Lewis’ extensive research, which spanned over four decades, he said. 

Lewis first became interested in Jefferson studies during her time in graduate school with the publication of “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974)” by Fawn M. Brodie, which provided an intimate look into Jefferson’s private life, Beinstock said. Brodie was the first major historian to suggest that Jefferson had a relationship with an enslaved woman named Sally Hemmings, he said.

On November 12, historian Robert Caro ‘53 hosted a book publication party to celebrate Bienstock’s accomplishment. Caro held the event for Bienstock because they have become friends over the years, and Caro was also a friend of Lewis, Beinstock said. “He was very impressed with the quality of the book and also the physical look of the book.”

40 people attended including alums, Bienstock’s co-editors Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed, the historians who wrote the framing essays, people in publishing who were friends of Bienstock, and colleagues, he said. Of the 40 people in attendance, five were Bienstock’s former students, whose graduation classes ranged from 1986 to 2017. “It was a pretty thrilling evening,” he said. 

History teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes said the event felt very communal, as almost all of the people in attendance were friends of Bienstock, she said. The event felt like a celebration; it recognized the work that went into publishing the book and honored Professor Lewis’ contributions, Milkes said.

The most memorable aspect of the event for Milkes was the speech Bienstock delivered, she said. “[He discussed] why it was so important for this book to come out as a tribute to his wife, and also all the other scholars that she mentored in their scholarly work and in their personal lives. I think his speech was able to really bring that out, and how connected they were,” she said.

Head of the Upper Division Jessica Levenstein said that in addition to being a celebration of the publication of the book the event was also very moving as it honored Lewis. “There were speeches that various people gave at the party, and a lot of them really spoke about Jan Lewis’s impact as a human being, so it was really very beautiful,” she said. 

During his speech, Bienstock discussed the cover art on the book, Levenstein said. “He said he wanted the cover of the book to be as beautiful as Jan.” 

Caro also delivered a speech at the event that discussed Bienstock and their relationship, Levenstein said. “Robert Caro gave a really beautiful speech about Mr. Bienstock and their friendship and how Mr. Bienstock was responsible for Mr. Caro’s relationship to Horace Mann, and for the prize that’s in Mr. Caro’s name.”