Cover image for Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings [electronic resource] : A Novel
Title:
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings [electronic resource] : A Novel
Author:
O'Connor, Stephen.
Description:
-- Washington Post Winner of the Crook’s Corner Book Prize Longlisted for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize A debut novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in whose story the conflict between the American ideal of equality and the realities of slavery and racism played out in the most tragic of terms.   Novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved,The Good Lord Bird by Russell Banks are a part of a long tradition of American fiction that plumbs the moral and human costs of history in ways that nonfiction simply can't. Now Stephen O’Connor joins this company with a profoundly original exploration of the many ways that the institution of slavery warped the human soul, as seen through the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. O’Connor’s protagonists are rendered via scrupulously researched scenes of their lives in Paris and at Monticello that alternate with a harrowing memoir written by Hemings after Jefferson’s death, as well as with dreamlike sequences in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, Hemings fabricates an "invention" that becomes the whole world, and they run into each other "after an unimaginable length of time" on the New York City subway. O'Connor is unsparing in his rendition of the hypocrisy of the Founding Father and slaveholder who wrote "all men are created equal,” while enabling Hemings to tell her story in a way history has not allowed her to. His important and beautifully written novel is a deep moral reckoning, a story about the search for justice, freedom and an ideal world—and about the survival of hope even in the midst of catastrophe.
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group,
Date:
2016
Digital Format:
cloudLibrary EPUB
Language:
English

Summary

Summary

"Dazzling. . . The most revolutionary reimagining of Jefferson's life ever." -Ron Charles, Washington Post

Winner of the Crook's Corner Book Prize

Longlisted for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

A debut novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in whose story the conflict between the American ideal of equality and the realities of slavery and racism played out in the most tragic of terms.

Novels such as Toni Morrison's Beloved, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, James McBride's The Good Lord Bird and Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks are a part of a long tradition of American fiction that plumbs the moral and human costs of history in ways that nonfiction simply can't. Now Stephen O'Connor joins this company with a profoundly original exploration of the many ways that the institution of slavery warped the human soul, as seen through the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. O'Connor's protagonists are rendered via scrupulously researched scenes of their lives in Paris and at Monticello that alternate with a harrowing memoir written by Hemings after Jefferson's death, as well as with dreamlike sequences in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, Hemings fabricates an "invention" that becomes the whole world, and they run into each other "after an unimaginable length of time" on the New York City subway. O'Connor is unsparing in his rendition of the hypocrisy of the Founding Father and slaveholder who wrote "all men are created equal," while enabling Hemings to tell her story in a way history has not allowed her to. His important and beautifully written novel is a deep moral reckoning, a story about the search for justice, freedom and an ideal world--and about the survival of hope even in the midst of catastrophe.


Author Notes

Stephen O'Connor is the author of "Will My Name Be Shouted Out?," his account of his years teaching creative writing in a New York inner-city school. Katha Pollitt called it "a wonderful, heartbreaking, enraging book." His is also the author of "Rescue," a collection of short fiction. O'Connor, an adjunct professor of creative writing at Lehman College, also teaches at the New School & Rutgers University. He resides in New York City.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

O'Connor (Orphan Trains) delves with great acuity and depth into the mind of Thomas Jefferson, who required sexual intimacy from Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, for nearly 40 years. Interweaving contemporary documents, narrative, fable, and fantasy, O'Connor creates startlingly vivid portraits of his major characters as well as the many injustices of slavery. The weighty political events of the day barely surface in the background as the novel focuses almost claustrophobically on the fraught intimacy between Jefferson and Hemings, from their humiliating first encounters to the steady companionship that evolves as they age. O'Connor takes additional imaginative leaps to further illuminate their relationship, including Hemings's fictional autobiography, scenes in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, and having the two meet on a subway in modern times. Hemings is depicted as a proud, strikingly beautiful woman possessed of intelligence and good sense, conflicted in her relationship with the master she grows to love, but O'Connor's real interest lies in understanding how a man so deeply committed to the ideals of democracy could be inherently racist, "both coward and hypocrite," and thus "abjectly human." The book meditates in turn on perception, justice, hatred, and evil, making visible-though never rationalizing-the profound contradictions between Jefferson's philosophical ideals and his private life. This is a challenging, illuminating, and entirely original work that's broad enough to encompass joy, penance, "complexity, ambiguity," and "our muddy human souls." (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Kirkus Review

In which the third president and his forbidden lover are presented here as phantoms, there as fully fleshed people, aching always for one another. The facts of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings are admittedly not well-known save that there was a relationship that lasted almost 40 years and that produced children, some of whom would be thought of by their contemporaries as white, others as black. O'Connor (Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, 2001, etc.) therefore has wide berth in imagining how that relationship might have been born and proceeded, though the thorniest questionis a consensual relationship possible in a milieu of slavery?is the one most obliquely addressed, and then, as the academics say, problematically: "And so, when some half hour after Sally Hemings arrives late at the upstairs parlor, and Thomas Jefferson confesses breathlessly that he would very much like to lie with her as a man lies with his wife, and she whispers that she would like that, too." Allowing for that possibility, and fully acknowledging the tragedy of slavery, O'Connor produces a tale that is overflowing with the range of human emotion; in its depiction of feeling, the novel is often brilliant, dense in poetry and light on unearned sentimentality. Even so, the writing is also often unnecessarily showy ("from time to time she hears a seething in the treetops, and the gravelly coughs of crows, the descending, double-voiced harmonies of veeries and the lonely cackling of the pileated woodpecker"). O'Connor proceeds by experiment, sometimes cloaking the narrative in the language of the period, sometimes seemingly channeling James Joyce; it is significant that some of the last interplay takes place among figures in a museum, as if Angels in America had gone south for the winter. The literary playfulness is admirable but overmuch; even when the story is at its most successful, somewhere between Faulkner-ian splendor and plainspoken history, one wishes for a little more economy and perhaps a little less anachronism. Rich and ambitious; not for every taste but an interesting effort. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* O'Connor (Orphan Trains, 2001) is a brave writer. For his debut novel, he takes on an incredibly complicated, sensitive, and still-debated topic: the decades-long relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman. Its format is impressively inventive and accessible, and it suits its subject. Using traditional narrative, dream sequences, reimaginings, and excerpts from memoirs and Jefferson's writings, it moves beyond historical fiction to demonstrate the bitter, long-lasting aftereffects of Jefferson's moral hypocrisy. The main story line proceeds chronologically, from before their liaison's beginnings, in 1789 Paris, through their later years at Monticello, where she bears his children and ponders her unusual situation. She and other Monticello slaves may be treated differently, but they still aren't free. Yes, we were lucky, she writes in her memoir (perhaps O'Connor's most daring fictional creation), but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune. Both individuals have rich interior lives and complex motivations. Jefferson publicly expresses the American ideal of liberty while awkwardly pursuing his attraction to the much-younger Sally Hemings, his late wife's half sister. Courageous and intellectually curious, she is initially repulsed by the physical attentions of this smart, important man and feels ashamed of her ultimate acquiescence. Whimsical in places, brutally damning in others, this mind-expanding epic offers much to discuss.--Johnson, Sarah Copyright 2016 Booklist


Library Journal Review

O'Connor (writing, Sarah Lawrence; two collections of short fiction) began writing the story while concurrently conducting historical research. The novel, which centers on the complicated and conflicted relationship of apostle of liberty Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress Sally Hemings, emerged in fragments-the author wrote across genres and about parts of his subjects' real or imagined lives. The result is a jarring exploration of big themes rooted in the contrary behaviors of ordinary people, presented as a kaleidoscope show juxtaposing straightforward narration with fictionalized memoir, fabulist outpourings, bald listings of historical fact, reflections on the poetry of colors, all moving from past to present and back again. In energetic prose, O'Connor probes how a person's hold over another pollutes them both and examines the inherent conflict in relationships among people involved in an institution as morally repugnant as slavery. VERDICT The sweep of narrative, quality of writing, intensity of feeling, and boldness of thought make this debut novel a strong candidate for major awards. [See Prepub Alert, 10/26/15.] © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.