”In a way, I am like some demented lawyer seeking only to get a hung jury—with the saving grace being that, when the truth is not obvious, people tend to do their most profound and significant thinking.”
In Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings—Stephen O’Connor’s newest book, and most ambitious to date—the choice of subject matter is deeply problematic and deliberately problematized. At a time when discussions of representation, identity politics, racial privilege, and authorial authority are waking up the publishing world, O’Connor wades into this territory full knowing that his own identity is overrepresented and that his viewpoint is, in a sense, not welcome. In short, he does what should not be done when he imagines himself into the lives of Sally Hemings, an enslaved young woman, and her power-wielding master, Thomas Jefferson, then figures the shape of their sexual relationship—all along writing while white, while male, while an employed academic, while a writer and not a historian, archivist, activist, or scholar of racial justice. He does this with his eyes open.
Over the course of our conversation, I’ve come to understand that he has not written this book to provoke or to engender a self-serving sense of shock; he has written with a belief in the possibilities of liminal space and in the revelations that occur at the point of tension. The result is a book that jars, unequivocally, and that disquietingly brings to the surface the anguish of past and present America. This is not a book that can leave you untouched. Its fine-point poetic sensibility and vivid description combine to haunt, to create a sub-dermis itch that begs relief—while offering, at last, a subtle but searing indictment.
Melody Nixon There’s a constant tension in this book, a sense of deep unease. Can you talk about what drew you to write this story?
Stephen O’Connor It all started almost by accident. A student asked me for a 300-word contribution to a literary magazine he was editing, so I sat down and wrote the first sentence that came into my head: “Sally Hemings is sleeping.” I didn’t know much about Hemings at that point, other than that a genetic test had showed that Jefferson had fathered her children, but the sentence led to a short surreal scene that I ended up rather liking. I sent it off, assuming I was done with the topic, but then found I couldn’t stop thinking about Hemings and Jefferson, especially about the incomprehensible fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence had a long-term sexual relationship with an enslaved woman thirty years his junior.
My initial assumption was that their “relationship” was nothing other than a horrifically prolonged rape. In fact, the next thing I wrote after that first surreal story was a realistic scene in which Jefferson forces himself upon Hemings. But once I started doing research, I came across a host of details suggesting that some sort of emotional bond might have existed between Hemings and Jefferson. The most striking piece of evidence was that when Hemings left Monticello after Jefferson’s death, she took his spectacles, inkwell, and shoe buckle with her, and when she herself was near death, she gave them to her and Jefferson’s son, who passed them on to his daughter. It seemed highly unlikely to me that Hemings would have even wanted these intimate items, let alone that they would have become treasured heirlooms, if her life with Jefferson had been nothing more than unending torture.
MN Victimhood can be a complicated space. Do you feel this was evidence of a positive attachment?
SO Possibly. At the very least it is evidence that the relationship was not nearly as grim as I had first imagined it. Another striking fact is that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, whom he loved dearly, and whose death threw him into such a profound depression that his friends appointed him ambassador to France, partly because they thought the change of scene might preserve his sanity. Three years into his term (and five years after Martha’s death), Hemings escorted his and Martha’s youngest daughter from Virginia to Paris. It seems perfectly possible that at this point Jefferson would have been struck by Hemings’s resemblance to his much missed wife, a supposition supported by the fact that, according to the only description we have of Hemings by someone who actually saw her, she looked “mighty near white,” with “long straight hair.”
Once it occurred to me that Hemings might have felt some sort of emotional attachment to Jefferson, I naturally began to wonder what that attachment might have been. Was it love? The Stockholm Syndrome? Something in between? And if it was the latter, should we see that attachment as differing from love only by degree? Or might we better understand it as an entirely distinct and even pathological attachment? I found such questions terrifically inspiring because they meant that by exploring the ambiguities of Hemings’s feeling in regard to Jefferson, I would also be able to explore the netherworld of that bond often considered life’s greatest blessing, but one that can, of course, also leave us vulnerable to pain and abuse—sometimes horrific abuse.
MN Are those the questions that kept you motivated to write?
SO Absolutely, especially at first. But one of the reasons why I found this story so fantastically inspiring was that it constantly brought me face to face with extremely complex and significant ambiguities—the sort of ambiguities that I think James Baldwin was talking about when he said that art’s purpose “is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” One of the most inspiring of those ambiguities concerned the notion of “race.” It is hard to imagine a clearer illustration of the barbaric absurdity of both the institution of slavery and the definition of race it depended on than that one sister should end up enslaved while the other became the master’s wife. Almost every aspect of Hemings’s position at Monticello was ambiguous: she was a Black woman who looked white, a member of the Jefferson family and an outsider, an enslaved servant and a lover—all of which must have given her an extremely perplexing and possibly tortured sense of her own identity.
MN What about her personality? How did that play in, and how did you seek to render Hemings as an individual?
SO Well, to begin with, all of those ambiguities suggested a fascinating character, with very particular and significant struggles. But there were also ambiguities arising from Hemings’s innate nature. From the very beginning, I saw her as a terrifically intelligent and intellectually ambitious woman, and thereby Jefferson’s equal in every essential way. The Jefferson whom I imagined recognized Hemings’s intellectual equality—indeed, that was one of the main things that attracted him to her—but he still felt the need to maintain his superiority to her on all fronts. And so, throughout the novel, Jefferson and Hemings engage in a complex dance, in which her intellectual abilities are simultaneously affirmed and denied, and her life with him is a source of pride and shame, comfort and agony.
While the real Sally Hemings may well have been just as brilliant as I imagine her to be, it is, alas, unlikely that she could read or write. Had she been literate, she would almost certainly have been the one to teach her and Jefferson’s son Madison to read rather than, as he relates in his memoir, Jefferson’s white grandchildren. But the more I learned about the fierce and contradictory pressures Hemings was subject to, the more I felt the need to let her speak in her own voice. And so I imagined her as not just literate, but the beneficiary of Jefferson’s library (the best in North America, at the time) and intermingled her written “memoir” with the novel’s predominantly third-person narration.
In the end, this memoir radically transformed the book, partly because it enabled me to show with far greater precision how Hemings would have suffered, given her decidedly ambiguous position at Monticello, and how she might have come to see Jefferson as both her tormentor and her best hope for achieving her ambitions, but also because it gave the book a new and, I hope, much more powerful climax; one that shows how, among the many horrors of slavery, there was a capacity to transform the most ordinary feelings and aspirations into moral monstrosities.
MN The idea that Hemings and Jefferson might have been in love is pretty troubling. Did your first readers dispute this possibility?
SO I never really saw Hemings and Jefferson as being in love, at least in the way we normally understand that term. But I did conceive of them as having very similar hearts and minds, and so as having the potential for love, though that potential existed within the context of slavery, and so could only be realized as a warped version of itself—as another of the monstrosities I was just talking about.
My earliest readers didn’t so much object to the way I rendered the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson as fail to fully grasp it—especially when I got around to the first sex scene. In an early draft I showed to two friends, the “camera” panned away when it came to that scene. I had been imagining their sexual interaction as very complex morally and emotionally but fundamentally tender—which is what it needed to be if any sort of bond were to arise between them. But once that camera panned away, my friends both imagined what I, myself, had initially thought: that Jefferson had simply raped her. I realized then that with such strong preconceptions at work, I couldn’t leave that scene to the imagination, that if I wanted my readers to understand Hemings and Jefferson’s similarities, and therefore the doomed potential of their relationship, I would have to render that first sex scene in detail. But more importantly, I realized that if I couldn’t make that scene believable and real, then my whole enterprise was bogus. The only way I could get my readers into that insight-encouraging sort of confusion that I try to evoke in all of my fiction would be to construct a path of completely believable actions and emotions that would lead readers, almost without their knowing it, to a point where they would say, “What’s going on here? Is this good? Is this bad? What should I think?”
MN —Which was very much my reaction. I couldn’t help but say aloud, throughout much of my reading experience, “I don’t know what to think!” That is to say, I found the experience short-circuiting. At the same time, however, this relationship was not treading totally morally ambiguous territory. There was right and wrong in their situation, wasn’t there?
SO I never wanted to apologize for Jefferson. He was a good man in some ways and an unmitigated barbarian in others. And that sex scene was only the first phase of a long process. Despite all the disparities of power between him and Hemings, and the injustice that characterized their entire relationship, there was also considerable innocence in that first time together, and they both came away from it having experienced much of the ordinary biological chemistry that happens when people form a sexual attachment. But as the book goes on, our understanding of Jefferson and his relationship with Hemings goes through many changes, and he is presented from many radically contrasting perspectives. I hope that people will see the end of the book as a terrific indictment of both Jefferson and slavery, though I want the overall impression to remain complex. I want people wondering what they should think and feel all the way to the end of the book’s very last sentence, and even after.
Not long ago I ran into one of Jefferson’s biographers, who suggested to me that to understand all is to forgive. I told him that there are things about Jefferson I can never forgive, but that they do not erase his considerable virtues. The more I learned about Jefferson, the more I came to detest his blindness to the nature and consequences of his attitudes toward African Americans, but the more I came to admire his lifelong opposition to the concentration of power in any social entity, whether it be the state he helped to found, the church, or an economic elite. And just as I don’t think his worst qualities are in any way elevated by his best, his best qualities are not diminished by his worst. Jefferson’s most noble and repulsive characteristics exist side-by-side, indissolubly themselves—a fact that simultaneously makes him both the most vexing of conundrums and a particularly vivid image of the paradoxes of human nature, and even of this country, in which his self-evident truths really are held sacred, even as they are also trampled upon every single day.
MN Your book is ultimately an indictment, but it also details Jefferson’s anti-violence and anti-authoritarian stances. Several of the scenes look to his childhood for some explanation of his position against the violence and brutality of slavery.
SO That comes through in his own writing. I quote this passage from his book Notes on the State of Virginia—
MN A memorable passage, which states that only a “genius” child could go against what his/her environment teaches, especially when witnessing violence—
SO Yes, and it seems clear to me, as it has to many of Jefferson’s biographers, that when he describes how devastating and morally corruptive it is for a child to witness his or her parents’ cruelty to enslaved people, he was actually talking about his own experience as a child. But it also seemed to me that that experience might be connected to other mysterious aspects of his character. He was terrifically shy, for example. He hated to speak in public, and delivered both of his inaugural addresses so quietly that no one could hear them. And after the first one, he announced that all of his addresses to Congress, including the State of the Union, would be delivered only in writing—a tradition that continued until Woodrow Wilson was president. He also seems to have been very shy with women, at least sexually. As far as anyone can tell, he had only one brief affair after his wife died—not long before Sally Hemings arrived in France. But apart from that affair, Hemings appears to have been the only woman he slept with during the more than forty years after Martha’s death.
I’ve also read letters to his brothers and sisters in which he introduces an intellectual topic by saying things like, “I know you’re not interested in this,” or “you might not understand,” which suggest that he was quite different than the rest of his family. None of them seem to have been the sort of compulsive reader—and writer!—that he was. So why was he so different than his siblings? And where did this introversion come from? One intriguing clue is suggested by what we might call a negative fact. In all of the 20,000 pages of his surviving letters, there is only one very brief reference to his mother, in a letter he wrote to his uncle to inform him of her death. And in his unfinished autobiography he wrote that when he was fourteen and his father died, “the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on my self entirely, without a relative or friend qualified to advise or guide me,” and yet, his mother was alive and he was living with her. That’s all that’s known about his relationship with her.
MN There is no evidence of her violence, or the psychosis that you portray in your book?
SO No. Several biographers suspect there was some dark side to his relationship with his mother, but the factual record is remarkably sparse, especially considering that Jefferson wrote a lot about his father, whom he admired tremendously. But one of the advantages of being a novelist rather than a biographer is that I have license to fill in the gaps between facts. So I created a borderline psychotic mother and used her as a mechanism to explain the existence of several puzzling things about his character, as well as about his deeply contradictory attitudes toward slavery.
MN It’s interesting to me that you chose to look at the personal/individual rather than the institutional to understand this contradiction in Jefferson. If you’ll allow me to get right into it for a minute: His position seems very emblematic not only of the time period in American history but also of the potential hypocrisy of privilege, and a lack of a humanist ethic in American institutions. The institution of the market-driven economy, for example, which is upheld by the legislature, and which has a primary motive of profit that allows for—justifies even—people prioritizing economic gain over moral action, over human rights, governs so much of our leaders’ actions. Did you examine the ways in which Jefferson was acting in accordance with the institutional norm?
SO This is an amazing question, and one that leaves me feeling a little bit exposed. One of the aspects of contemporary American culture that most distresses me is our reluctance to think much about the systemic forces that shape our life—politics, economics, and historical momentum—and to only feel comfortable thinking about the personal and domestic—a tendency that I encounter all the time in my graduate creative writing workshops. But for better and worse, examinations of systems are more effectively conducted in the more impersonal forms of nonfiction, while the novel (like the memoir) is extremely good at helping us understand individual experience. Once upon at time, in fact, writing about the daily life of ordinary people was a subversive act, and in that regard it contributed to the emergence of democracy. But, alas, the novel has perhaps also played a role in making it more difficult for people to think about or be interested in the more abstract forces of political and economic life.
In my defense, however, I do try to show how Jefferson and Hemings were shaped by the conditions and beliefs of their own era, and how those determined their understanding of themselves and of their relations to other people. Mostly I show this via my characters’ actions and emotions—which necessarily imply a certain worldview—but sometimes I also talk about that worldview explicitly.
MN The effect of the institution of slavery is very evident in the story. To take the point further though, I want to mention that Jefferson had no external moral obligation to empower and free the enslaved people on his plantation. It strikes me that we often see these sorts of hypocrisies in supposed progressive leaders. Al Gore flying around the world in a private jet to make a film about climate change is one example. Barack Obama giving speeches about women’s rights and allowing for a clause in the Affordable Care Act that cuts off access to abortion for a huge portion of women in different states around the US is another. Friedrich Engels owning factories is another. People are rarely under any obligation to honor an ethical and human rights code unless it’s enshrined in law, and even then laws are continually contested. Could it be that there’s a lack of a social code—now and then—that requires people in power to act ethically? To resist, in this case, racism and racist degradation?
SO I have a different take than you on one aspect of your question. I believe very strongly that Jefferson was under a moral obligation to empower and free the enslaved people at Monticello, and that this obligation existed in and of itself, regardless of whether it was enshrined in law or even whether he understood or acted upon that obligation. He was certainly made aware of the immorality of slavery over and over again, by friends and acquaintances who talked and wrote to him about the issue, and even by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who left him $20,000 to free the enslaved people on his plantation.
One of the many paradoxes of Jefferson’s character was that he also understood this obligation on the basis of his own thought and experience. Two of his earliest clients as a lawyer in Williamsburg were “mulatto” men suing for their freedom, and it was during his pro-bono defense of one of these men that he first uttered the sentiment that some six years later he would immortalize as “all men are created equal.” And for much of his early career (until the beginning of his relationship with Hemings, in fact), he tried repeatedly to ban the importation of slaves and to prohibit slavery outright in Virginia and all the new states that would be added to the original thirteen. And as president, he actually got Congress to ban the importation of slaves—which was the most significant piece of federal antislavery legislation prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, though it was never adequately enforced.
And while he was relatively liberal in the degree of independence and authority that he gave some of the enslaved people on his plantation (he paid them meagerly for their labors and allowed them to sell what they could raise and grow on their allotments of land) and he also freed several at their own request, he seems never to have had any intention of freeing them en masse. And so, like Gore, Obama, and Engels, he was admirable in some parts of his life and despicable in others. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how we are all like that. I imagine future generations looking back in incredulous horror at our environmental complacency, and saying, “How could you have done so little when you knew that your inaction would lead to the suffering and death of billions?” Sometimes that fantasy makes it hard for me to sleep at night, and yet I myself do very little about the environment, apart from recycling and carrying my own bag to the supermarket. It is so easy to be blind to the moral obligations of one’s own era, especially when one’s life is filled with more immediate needs and pleasures. But just because one is blind doesn’t mean the obligations don’t exist.
MN In that sense, I do agree. I also wonder if there’s some level of defense occurring in the novel. The fragmented form holds a sense of cataloging, of indexing, of compiling—as though pieces of evidence are being laid out in a trial. This leads to a feeling that a defense of Jefferson’s character is taking place. For example, the broad social context is given for Sally Hemings and we are shown how limited her options were, as a poor, enslaved, mixed-race female—and how Jefferson’s “offer” might have made sense to her in that context. Did you have an urge to defend Jefferson in any way?
SO It’s interesting that you’ve focused on that passage.
MN It struck me, hugely, because it posits the idea of privileged men creating situations that force women into prostitution. And by extension, privileged majorities forcing minorities into subservience.
SO Initially the novel didn’t include that micro-essay about social conditions during Hemings and Jefferson’s era. When I showed that early draft to my two friends, both of them very intelligent and well read, I found that they knew so little about the way people lived during the decades around 1800 that it was hard for them to understand what was actually happening. My assumption had been that the social context would have been indicated by the way people acted and thought within the story itself, but to my friends those aspects of my characters’ behavior simply didn’t make sense, mainly because they didn’t correspond to some widely held but inaccurate clichés about that era.
For example, we tend to think that if Jefferson had just freed the enslaved people at Monticello, they would have been able to walk off the plantation and lead lives more or less like we lead today. That simply wasn’t true. Jefferson’s era was much more brutal than ours. Even white working-class people lived lives that we would consider absolutely horrific today. They were paid a pittance. Their employers, whom they called “master,” could beat them. And in regard to your remark about women being forced into prostitution: marriage during Jefferson’s era might strike us as alarmingly close to slavery. Men had complete control of their wives’ money, and were also entitled to beat them—at least under certain circumstances. And what is more, the “master” of the house was commonly understood to have the right to extract sexual “favors” from female servants. That was the context in which Hemings and Jefferson both lived. It determined what they saw as normal, and how they understood the evil and the benefits of their situation. If I wanted my readers to understand why my characters behaved and thought as they did, I had to give them a solid grounding in such facts. And so, at the urging of one of my friends, I inserted that essay about social conditions into the novel, and, since that time, none of the eight or so people who have read the manuscript has had any problem comprehending why my characters behave as they do, or what they are thinking and feeling.
All that said, I really like your notion that the book is a sort of trial. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I really am giving my readers evidence, pro and con, all the way through the novel—though not with the goal of either establishing innocence or extracting a conviction. What I want to do is lead my readers ever deeper into certain complex issues so that they will have to think hard about what they actually believe. In a way, I am like some demented lawyer seeking only to get a hung jury—with the saving grace being that, when the truth is not obvious, people tend to do their most profound and significant thinking.
MN This book is a remarkable endeavor. And it will certainly be controversial, especially given your position as a white author, a male author, and the book’s timing in a period of history when it’s clear that so many civil rights are still being denied black people in this country. How has this context, and your own privilege, factored in your thinking about the book? How have your race and gender affected your writing of this?
SO From the moment I wrote that very first sentence about Sally Hemings sleeping, I knew that my being what I sometimes call a “nearly-dead white male” meant that some readers would not accept one word I had to say about her or Jefferson. There were times when I thought I was crazy for having undertaken a project in which my mere authorship was controversial, but the characters and dilemmas I was exploring were so fascinating that I simply could not stop writing.
That said, I completely understood why some people think that white writers had played far too big a role in telling the story of African Americans. That’s an opinion I share, in fact. And I also know that the vast majority of white writers who have attempted to render African American life have done a pretty miserable job of it. So I decided that if I were to continue working on this novel, I had to try hard to transcend the biases, emotional predispositions, and simple ignorance that make it so difficult for white people generally, not just to comprehend, but to feel the realities of African American life.
At the same time, though I have often written from the point of view of women, and indeed have considered myself a feminist since the age of seventeen, I had never written about a relationship in which there was such an extreme imbalance of power as existed between Hemings and Jefferson. As soon as I began to write, I understood that I would have to work hard, not merely to render Hemings’s extreme vulnerability in regard to this man who had complete control over her life, but to do so without making her a mere victim—a woman lacking agency, dignity, or independence of spirit. And, of course, I had to do so without eroticizing the brutal consequences of that vulnerability.
MN What did you do to try to stop your limitations or blind spots from dominating?
SO Writing this book, especially as I revised it over more than twenty drafts, required a continuous interrogation of my own impulses and presumptions, and a constant return to historical sources to be sure that my interpretations accorded with the facts. But, over the years, I also talked to a lot of people about my book and the problems I was having. Merely voicing my thoughts helped me clarify them, but my friends would also let me know, sometimes only by their expressions, if they thought there was something was wrong with what I was saying. I listened carefully to everything my friends had to tell me, and did my best not to be defensive. I had two African American friends in particular—one male, one female—who always looked so uncomfortable when I would talk about my book, and so I asked them both to read it and to be perfectly honest with me if they found anything wrong. My manuscript was eight inches thick at that point, but amazingly both friends agreed to my request, which was incredibly generous of them.
MN What was their reaction?
SO To my surprise and relief—and theirs too, I think—they both loved the book. They found parts of it emotionally grueling, but thought that, except for the tiniest details, I had gotten the story exactly right. I hope, of course, that people not already disposed in my favor will have a similar response, but that remains to be seen.
My goal in all of this self-interrogation was to strike an extremely difficult balance: I wanted to precisely articulate the moral horror of slavery, racism, and patriarchal domination, while allowing both Hemings and Jefferson their full human complexity, and while also staying true to the artistic vision that has guided my writing for my entire life—a vision that has always been more interested in the investigation of ambiguity than in the expression of certitude.
MN Letting the finished book go—letting it float off down the river on its own journey—is the next step in this process. Where do you hope it will land? What do you hope will come out of this?
SO Well, I’m hoping that people will be engaged by my story, and moved by it, and that it will stimulate thought and public discussion about race, morality, American history, and the complexities of human nature. I also hope that in some small way my book and all the discussions that flow from it might help people reach across boundaries and feel their common humanity. But, at the same time, I want my novel to be unsettling. I think of literature—and all art, really—as a little bomb that you set off in the imagination of your readers or your audience. It’s something that provokes, confuses, challenges, and gets people thinking. We live in a world that is so dominated by accepted ideas, by these little boxes we think of as “reality.” Our job as artists is to explore the places between the boxes—those things we don’t understand, or notice, or that even frighten us. Our job is to make those things “real” too. Some people will be exhilarated by what we do and others will be outraged. The outrage may be more difficult for an artist to deal with, but it is an essential part of the process, and so it is a good thing—a very good thing.
Melody Nixon, a New Zealand-born writer living in New York City, is the interviews editor for The Common, a co-curator of the First Person Plural Reading Series in Harlem, NYC, and a co-founder of Apogee Journal.