Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is a novel by Stephen O’Connor, released April 5th by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin. It is a lengthy book with an experimental format, containing excerpts from essays, dream-like sequences, diaries, and factual information situated amidst the primary story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. O’Connor deftly fills in “the gaps between facts,” imagining the nuances of a relationship that, save a few hundred words, is almost completely absent from primary sources on Jefferson. At turns playful and poignant, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is an in-depth look at what the literal process of a life of cognitive dissonance entails, about the repeated, daily failure to reconcile one of the most glaring hypocrisies in the history of the United States.
O’Connor manages to write unflinchingly about morality without being didactic, nor does it feel like he’s finger-wagging at the clearly immoral practice of slavery. Writing directly about ethics in fiction rarely works, but it never feels out of place in the Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings. In one of the many mini-narrative sequences that run concurrently with the main story, a young, female guard says to her captor Jefferson: “And then you’re saying, ‘All men are created equal,’ and you’re calling slavery an ‘abominable crime,’ and you’re wholly sincere. . . . But then you discover that you’re short of cash, so instead of selling a few acres of land, or some hogs, or just doing without a shipment or two of French wine, you sell a bunch of human beings.” Not all of these mini-narratives are completely successful. A young Jefferson watching his life in a movie theater or a group of people camping out in Jefferson’s body (see the 1987 movie Innerspace for a cinematic example) work decidedly less well. While engaging, scenes like these seem to add little to Connor’s well-developed portraits of Jefferson and Hemings, nor do they add to the central plot in any substantive way, and could probably have been left out. For the most part, his asides are either powerfully direct or almost entirely opaque. With these exceptions, the fragmented format of the novel generally strengthens the almost funereal quality of the prose. The layout of the novel combined with the largely present-tense narration means that Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings isn’t the most immediately accessible book, but O’Connor is able to write with a sort of lightness that is almost ethereal, a considerable accomplishment for a book that very well may be categorized as historical fiction.
O’Connor characterizes Jefferson in all of his innate contradiction; he’s able to pinpoint Jefferson’s redemptive qualities without attempting to explain his faults through subtext (as some academics tried to do when it came out that critic Paul de Man had written extensively for Nazi publications). Hemings is portrayed as a bright young woman with moderate complexion, taciturn but very intelligent and able to pick up French with little difficulty. Given the relative lack of actual historical information about her, most of the passages and scenarios are richly imagined. Jefferson’s position on slavery throughout the novel is as muddy as Hemings’s feelings toward Jefferson himself: Sally’s claim “I don’t think I have ever had a simple thought or feeling about Mr. Jefferson, one that didn’t contain its opposite or which—more to the point—wasn’t radically intensified by having to do constant battle with its contrary” becomes hauntingly familiar as the novel progresses.
The most redeeming part of the book, I think, is how carefully O’Connor chronicles Jefferson as perpetually lying to himself; how smart people who do horrific things have an uncanny ability to logically justify their actions. Jefferson intellectually boxes himself in over and over again, making slavery look like the lesser of two evils. His logic is sound, but, as is often the case with the most gifted of wicked rhetoricians, his premise is absurd. Jefferson repeatedly pleads with Sally to “be reasonable” throughout the novel, arguing at one point that if he granted her freedom, “the whole world would know why,” and that she already lives as if she were free anyway. Likewise, for Sally, leaving Monticello would have meant leaving everyone she loved. In a conversation with Sally, Jefferson argues: “Those able to make a satisfactory living as free men and women and who desire to be free can be freed posthaste. But as for those who have not acquired the necessary training or the habits of industry and foresight, . . . it is far better to inculcate these virtues through encouragement and example than to abandon such people among a populace who mean them only ill, who will never pay them adequately for their labor and will clap them behind bars at the least excuse.”
Not long after, he argues against freeing his craftsmen because then, the craftsmen would no longer be able to train other slaves with a skill that would provide them with a way of making a living after being freed. Logically coherent, but absurd, to be sure. He presents caveat after caveat; his conditions for the complete cessation of slavery are full of catch-22’s. This is where at O’Connor’s imagination becomes particularly impressive, in identifying exactly how self-deception happens. “You are condemned, not merely by your most evil acts but by your finest words, those self-evident truths of yours that created a whole new world—a world that will never forgive you for your sins.” This is the underlying irony of the book, that the soon-to-be president of a nascent country that prides itself on individualism argues for slavery because he wonders whether “it is wise” to let slaves decide their own fates. Despite being needlessly avant-garde on occasion, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is a well-researched, thoughtful novel about Sally Hemings’ s role in Jefferson’s inability to “unite his words and his life.”
Publisher: Viking Books
Publication date: April 5, 2016
Reviewed by Jeremy Klemin