Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, a novel by Stephen O’Connor is over 600 pages, and I’ve been reading it intermittently for weeks.
A friend who I admire for his intelligence and for his depth of knowledge about writing and life in general liked the book so well that he gave me a copy as a gift. After beginning the book, I went away and left it at home. Then other priorities took precedence and I didn’t read.
It has been important to me to complete the book, not only because I want to demonstrate my appreciation for the gift, but equally as important, I want to see how I feel about a novel written by a white man about the often referenced relationship–if I dare call it a relationship given the power imbalance–between a slave master and a slave woman. Not an ordinary slave master, but Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of this country, author of the Declaration of Independence, and father of the University of Virginia, among other notable accomplishments.
The author, Stephen O’Connor, did not write this fictional biography as a traditional novel. His biography of the long liaison between Jefferson and Hemings is infused with fantasies, dreams, and meditations, including characters such as James and Dolly Madison in colorful and fantastic musings.
The author acknowledges that there is literally no biographical information about Hemings and no known photographic likenesses. In his creation of the character of Sally Hemings, O’Connor brings an important element about this slave woman. She looks like a white woman in every aspect of her physical features. I don’t know why, but this made a difference for me in reading the book.
O’Connor created a woman, not a slave without gender identity. He adds dimension to a historical character that most have only known as a slave whose children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.
O’Connor gives us a view of the power and emotional conflict that could occur in the life of a woman in circumstances that were, on the one hand beyond her control, and on the other, we’re not sure.
Through her character, we also see what we’ve always known about Jefferson, such as his complexity and the conflict between his universal moral positions and his way of life. This novel forces the reader to see the intersections of identity within individuals and the wide variations of perceptions within groups of people, regardless of their stations in life and despite the power imbalance in the world where slavery existed.
This book defies any simplistic notions of black and white and slave and master, though as one reviewer notes, “This book is a history of oppression. . .”
For me, O’Connor’s insights as told through the voices of Jefferson and Hemings give him credibility when creating a voice for Sally Hemings. For example,
People adjust to their circumstances . . . Even if it can also be their undoing.
In reference to those who felt fortunate that Jefferson was not a cruel slave master:
Yes we were lucky, but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune.
And so the desire to lie to oneself or to make much of small blessings becomes irresistible, and thus to further humiliation. The very songs we sing to escape our chains themselves become our chains . . . .
[Sally Hemings to Jefferson] You think it enough to speak beautiful words, but that beauty is nothing unless those words are lived.
I am partial to biographical novels and sensitive to any efforts to soften or deny the cruelty and moral degradation of slavery and, because of these prejudices, I am impressed with O’Connor’s work in adding a critical piece of Jefferson’s life by creating a persona for Sally Hemings.