Reading Matters

A new, provocative story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave

As you might well expect, Stephen O’Connor’s debut novel, “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings,” is prompting raves as well as creating a furor of outrage in reviews, tweets and online comments.

Who wouldn’t recoil at the thought of Thomas Jefferson, the 40-something widower and author of the Declaration of Independence, bedding his light-skinned teenage slave, a woman who had no recourse but to submit to what is rightly called rape?

Who wouldn’t want to throttle a man who wrote that humans were endowed with “inalienable rights,” yet never freed the woman with whom he had a decades-long, intimate relationship?

Who wouldn’t be incensed that this woman who bore him six children had to suffer Jefferson’s indifference to her when one of the adult children by his late wife visited – a wife who was, because they shared the same white father, a half-sister to Sally Hemings?

Yet O’Connor, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence and is the author of the nonfiction books “Will My Name Be Shouted Out?” and “Orphan Trains,” seems to open the arteries of the couple’s hearts – laying bare their quarrels and joys, their disgusts and pleasures, their lusts and dreams – to give us one of the most imaginatively brilliant and compelling novels I’ve read in years.

At the same time, he stares unblinkingly into the dark heart of slavery and exposes the churning complexity of the slave owner’s mind: his denials and greeds; his self-righteousness and patent hypocrisy.

The sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings begins in Paris, where Jefferson, U.S. Minister to France, remarks that Sally’s voice, “like silk and sand,” so reminds him of his late wife’s. After five years of clandestine sex in the Hotel de Langeac, it’s back to Monticello, Jefferson’s mountain retreat in Albemarle County, Va.

Here the relationship changes. Jefferson is often away in Philadelphia or Washington, and Sally pines for him. And to Sally’s sorrow, he makes no attempt to send word of consolation after the death of their 2-year-old daughter Harriet.

As the years pass, Hemings’ feelings leaf into a tree of contradictions. There’s her “trembling rage” when he tells her yet again “that the world will not allow him to love her openly.” Her hate for herself “when I spoke,” and “when I was silent,” on the subject of freeing the slaves. Her joy when, naked together, “each will pour through the body of the other like a wild river.” Her disgust at Jefferson’s aging body: “getting uglier every day.”

O’Connor deepens our enlightenment further with an imagined Greek chorus of Hemings’ fellow slaves’ reaction to her. Their chants begin, “We pity her ... because she believes that she is white even though her master treats her as if she’s black.” We pity her because “we know that a master’s promises are equal to a snake’s hiss.”

A rich aspect of the novel is O’Connor’s fabulist chapters. Here the lovesick Jefferson rides a modern subway, ogling Sally. We see them, after death, visiting the Museum of Miscegenation, where they view their past life together. And we watch as James and Dolley Madison escort Jefferson to a Hollywood movie about his life with Sally.

Add to all this some factual excerpts from writings of slaves under Jefferson, from his account books, from his “Autobiography” and from one of Jefferson’s sons with Sally.

Stephen O’Connor leads us on a breathtaking excursion of impossible but often joyful love and an even more impossible system of governance. I am humbled by his audacious gift both to enlighten us and to bowl us over.

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

Fiction

“Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings”

By Stephen O’Connor

Viking, 609 pages

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