'Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings' reimagines difficult history
By Meredith Maran
Jul 19, 2016 at 5:51 PM
"Until the lions have their own historians," says an African proverb, "the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." The proverb offers one answer to a question that has long plagued writers, activists and historians. Who gets to tell the stories of those who have been denied the right to tell their own?
Given that heterosexual white men still get the, um, lion's share of book contracts, should straight people write books about the gay rights movement? Should men write about the struggle for women's equality? And — as with Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," William Styron's Pulitzer-winning "Confessions of Nat Turner" and now Stephen O'Connor's "Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings" —should a white person write a book whose central dilemma is slavery?
"Anyone has the right to write about any subject available to be written about," historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has said. But the white person who writes a 624-page novel about the 37-year love affair between a white slave owner — who happens to be the third president of the United States and author of the phrase "All men are created equal" — and a mixed-race slave — whom he happens to own and who happens to give birth to six of his children — had better have the politics, the courage and, most importantly, the storytelling skills to get it right.
Fortunately, O'Connor manifests an abundance of these qualities in "Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings," his debut novel. Ambitious doesn't begin to describe the scope of the project O'Connor undertook. And successful doesn't begin to describe the wildly imaginative techniques he used to realize his authorial goal, which is clearly to humanize — equalize, you might say — the two members of this passionate, conflicted couple: the lionized, hypocritical Jefferson, who railed against slavery while owning slaves, and the powerful yet complicit Hemings, who loved and loathed her owner.
O'Connor incorporates historically accurate details — for example, Jefferson's arc from traumatic childhood through his death, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence — then adds a post-modern twist, imbuing the novel with the compelling chaos of a fever dream. And so we get hyper-realistic, historically accurate scenes at Monticello and in Paris juxtaposed against a continuous thread of Hemings' fictitious journal entries ("one's very desire to live a decent and ordinary life can be an unending source of humiliation") and passages from the memoirs of other slaves. Passages analyzing wages and life expectancy during Jefferson's time are woven through excerpts taken from Jefferson's real-life anti-slavery treatises, "A Summary View of the Rights of British North America" (1774) and "Notes on the State of Virginia" (1785). Surreal dream sequences flow into philosophical ponderings on the phenomenon of color, the consequences of the theft of dignity, the nature of sexual consent.
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By Walton Muyumba
Apr 08, 2016 at 9:15 AM
What makes these literary gymnastics work is, in a word, talent. Witness O'Connor's authoritative hand and the beauty of his prose in this tender scene in which Jefferson, teaching one of his slaves to write, first feels an erotic attraction to Hemings, who is 30 years his junior.
He lets go of her hand, and as she makes a rough approximation of the sentence he has written, he realizes — fully realizes for the first time — that she has become a beautiful young woman …. Sally Hemings is a slave girl, he tells himself …. How could he possibly have any sort of feeling for her? Absurd! Preposterous! He need only wait, and all will be well.
But of course all isn't well, and so we have this, many years later, from Hemings' journal:
I used little truths and partial truths and sometimes big truths (my love for my children) to convince myself of the very big lie that I need feel no shame, that I was as close to virtuous as I could reasonably have expected to be.
I said yes to Mr. Jefferson and yes to evasions, lies and complicity. But I could have said no. No, you may not kiss me. No, I do not want your hands on my body. No, I owe you nothing …. I don't love you …. I might have had a purer soul.
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By Lloyd Sachs
Jul 19, 2016 at 12:52 PM
In an author's note, O'Connor addresses the most provocative aspect of the novel. "At the beginning I assumed that Jefferson and Hemings' relationship had commenced with rape and amounted to, at best, a grudging submission on her part to demands she was powerless to resist …. Eventually I came to believe that Hemings's feelings for Jefferson might well have fallen somewhere along the spectrum between love and Stockholm syndrome."
O'Connor takes a risky stance, characterizing a multi-decade sexual relationship between a slave owner and a slave as anything other than rape. What justifies the risk is his insistence on using a full palette and tiny brushes to draw these characters, rejecting broad brush strokes in black and white. Rendered in all their complex, contradictory glory, Jefferson and Hemings seem to stand up on the page and demand of the reader, "If you found yourself in our situation, what would you have done?"
Meredith Maran is the author of "Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature."