When novelist Stephen O’Connor set out to write Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, he found that his curiosity stemmed from those moments and people that history has so efficiently erased for us. This motivation led him right into the arms of Thomas Jefferson, a figure that is consumed by a myriad of historical tropes, especially now, in 2016. He was asked, as part of an exercise spearheaded by Gigantic Magazine to write 300 hundred words about a historical figure. O’Connor says that “Sally Hemings is sleeping” is the first line that came to his mind. As it did for Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn, O’Connor’s subject matter arrived as “a vision in a dream,” as a thought begging to be fleshed out.
O’Connor didn’t know much about Sally Hemings when she came to him but her existence sparked crucial reflections about the state of 19th-century America. “I started to think about how a man who wrote ‘all men are created equal,’ and who advocated the rights to life and the pursuit of happiness, could be a slave-holder,” says O’Connor. “I wanted to get into his mind in the way that a novelist gets into a character’s mind. How did he live in his own mind?” It is, indeed, one thing to look at Thomas Jefferson’s history from a political perspective, but it is a completely different matter to consider his private and domestic life in tandem with it.
“How did Jefferson maintain these two diametrically opposed positions and think of himself as a decent person? And what is the nature of this feeling?” O’Connor says. The novel portrays with mastery the complexity of the human mind and attempts to organize working definitions of terms like “slave,” “love,” and “freedom.” At the time, these terms were incredibly (and rightfully) political, but O’Connor approaches these ideas through psycho-geographical character development. “Every time I’d start to develop a scene, I’d come against another paradoxical situation. I became obsessed by it.” It is true that the entirety of Jefferson’s historical moment was a complete paradox: men fighting for equality would go home to enslaved peoples.
This paradox is precisely what led O’Connor to create a Sally Hemings who meets Jefferson at eye level: “I was interested in the way that slavery would warp the character of all the people involved,” he says. “One of the things I wanted to do was have Sally Hemings be Jefferson’s equal. I wanted her to be able to talk to him on his level.” O’Connor’s Sally Hemings is fiery, insolent, and opinionated in a way that a person of her race and gender most likely couldn’t have been in the face of authority. But the novel gives more importance to the development of character rather than to political achievement, societal standing, and historical accuracy. Sally, as a result, is emphatically thrilling.
A writer of historical fiction must balance historical accuracy and the need to stay true to the imagination. O’Connor makes a conscious decision to focus on the human condition as fact, rather than historicity. “We have 20,000 pages of [Jefferson’s] letters. There’s not one mention of Sally Hemings. She’s in his record books in the way that all the other enslaved people were. There’s nothing special about her,” says O’Connor. Yet the details about Hemings’ character are staggeringly vivid and believable. “I had to make Sally Hemings probably different than she was historically. I would never assert this as a historical fact,” specifies O’Connor.
Organized in what O’Connor characterizes as “scenes,” the book is constructed in various forms: standard third person narrative, first person narrative, quotes, reflections, financial reports, and surrealist scenes. Oscillating between history and fiction, the scenes operate as “reality flashes,” jolting the reader back into the contemporary racial climate, where similar questions are still being asked. “I think that writing should be like a little bomb that the artist throws into the mind of the audience. Suddenly there’s a moment of disorientation and surprise. Readers start to think really hard, and make their own discoveries.”Michael Valinsky is the editorial assistant.