STEPHEN O’CONNOR is the author of five books, most recently, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, a novel, and Here Comes Another Lesson, short stories. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, and many other journals. His story, “Ziggurat,” was read by Tim Curry on Selected Shorts. He teaches in the Sarah Lawrence MFA writing program.
Thank you so much for being here, Stephen.
I always want to know what was haunting the author before he or she wrote the book. What was haunting you?
Back in the fall of 2009, one of my Columbia MFA students asked if I would contribute a 300-word piece on a historical figure to a literary magazine he was starting. That night, I sat down at my desk and typed the first words that came into my head: "Sally Hemings is sleeping." At that point I knew almost nothing about Hemings, other than that she had had several of Thomas Jefferson's children. So in my next sentence, I described those children kneeling on her bed, looking down at her as she slept, and then I decided that I would have the oldest child lower the youngest down into her dreams in a sort of diving bell. I finished the story quickly, sent it off to my student and thought that was the end of it—and that, of course, was exactly when the haunting began. Over the next few days I simply couldn't stop thinking about Jefferson. I found it impossible to understand how the same man who had written, "All men are created equal," was not only a slaveholder, but felt justified in having a sexual relationship with an enslaved woman. How he could have held both ideas inside his head and imagined himself to be even a remotely decent human being?
For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I am constantly writing about people who try to do the right thing and fail, and this is as true of my nonfiction as my fiction. In WILL MY NAME BE SHOUTED OUT?, my memoir about teaching at a New York City public school, I am the one who wants to do the right thing and fails, and in ORPHAN TRAINS, my nonfiction account of an early child welfare experiment, that person is Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Children's Aid Society. Obviously, Jefferson failed rather spectacularly at living up to some of his own ideals, so perhaps it was inevitable that he should end up as one of my protagonists. But that was the last thing on my mind when I first started writing about him. My main goal in those early days was use fiction as a sort of tool to get inside Jefferson’s head and see if I could make some sense of what was happening there. The first scene I wrote after mailing off my story was realistic, but I followed it with another dreamlike scene, and after that basically alternated between the styles according to the whims of my inspiration. As the pages accumulated a narrative gradually emerged and I realized that I had, in fact, embarked on a short story. For a long time, however, I couldn’t decide whether the story should be realism or surrealism. I kept going back and forth between the genres, always missing the clarity of vision afforded by one genre when I was writing in the other. But then one day I realized that what most interested me was the contrast between these two ways of making sense of my characters, so I decided to try writing the story in both forms—and found the result so inspiring that I eventually threw prose poetry and essays into the mix. More and more pages accumulated, and over a period of six years, my “short” story grew into a manuscript eight inches thick.
Part of the absolute genius of your novel is that you have created a living breathing Sally Hemings and given her a voice that was denied her in her lifetime. How daunting a task was that? What was your research like, and what surprised you?
Initially, the realistic scenes of the novel (which are the ones that elaborate the main plot) were entirely in the third person, and slightly more than half of them focused on Sally Hemings (I actually counted the pages!!). My first surprise came when I gave an early draft of the book to two friends, and both thought that my primary focus was on Jefferson. Initially, I found this response deeply puzzling, but then I realized that, because of his nearly mythical status as an American icon, Jefferson simply loomed larger on the page than Hemings, and his every word and action had an amplified significance—a state of affairs that struck me as a continuation of the injustice that had deprived the historical Hemings of her own voice. For a long time I couldn’t figure out how to correct this imbalance, but then one afternoon, as I was making a sandwich for lunch, it occurred to me that if I let Sally Hemings speak directly to the reader I would, in effect, be giving her a megaphone and allowing her to seize control of her part of the story. I took my sandwich to my desk, started typing and, for days thereafter, her words just poured out of me. I don’t think I have ever been more inspired in my life.
In some ways it is no surprise that her voice should have come to me so quickly. By the time I finished that early draft, I had read many books on Hemings and Jefferson, and on slavery and the historical period generally. (The most important of these were Annette Gordon-Reed's brilliant THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO and Harriet Jacobs's memoir, INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL.) And I had also spent years writing and thinking about Hemings’s life and how she might have responded to her predicament. What might be more surprising, however, is that I actually found Hemings's heart and mind far easier to occupy than Jefferson's. I had, after all, started the book precisely because I had found his moral schizophrenia incomprehensible. But more to the point: Once my imagination actually enabled me to enter into Jefferson’s character, and recreate within myself a sensibility that experienced “owning” other human beings as natural, I had constantly to fight off my moral repulsion and my sense that, by having come so close to Jefferson, I was besmirching myself. By contrast, there was nothing morally objectionable about Sally Hemings. She was the victim rather than the perpetrator of injustice, and even when she had to do things that troubled her conscience, she was only trying to make the best of a horrific situation.
But just because Hemings's point of view was far less emotionally grueling to inhabit than Jefferson’s does not mean that, as a 21st century white male, I didn’t face many significant challenges in my attempts to render anything like the truth of her experience. One of those challenges was the fact that I wasn’t sure it was even right for me to speak in Hemings’s voice. I well understood that for the last 400 years, the stories of African Americans have primarily been told—and, in general, told badly—by white people, and that this is an era in which it is probably best for someone like me to simply get out of the way. But on the other hand, the key reason I found writing from Hemings’s point of view so inspiring was that it enabled me to convey the complex psychological, emotional and moral ramifications of slavery far more powerfully than I had been able to in the third person. To cut her voice would have weakened the whole book and made it impossible for me to render what I felt were crucial insights. So I continued writing in Hemings’s voice and did all I could to avoid succumbing to the blind spots and prejudices that might arise from my demographic characteristics and individual history. Whether I have succeeded in this regard is for other people to decide.
What things were you compelled to fictionalize and what things strictly followed the truth?
Well, since this is a novel, probably the most honest answer to this question is that everything is fictionalized, except for the quotations from historical documents. After all, even in those scenes based on documented events, all of the dialogue, specific actions and emotional responses are the products of my imagination. But that said, I worked hard to make sure that the novel accorded with the historical record. I didn’t take any liberties with chronology, and tried never to contradict any well-established fact about Jefferson or Hemings. Even in the wildest surrealist passages (when Jefferson is an ape, for example, or when Hemings is in her flying machine), I hoped that my inventions would shed light on the psychology and relationship of the actual Hemings and Jefferson.
The historical record is, however, extremely sparse when it comes to Sally Hemings. She is not mentioned on a single one of the 20,000 pages of Jefferson’s surviving letters, and I would be surprised if, outside of the scanty notations in Jefferson’s plantation record books, there are more than a thousand words specifically referring to her written by anyone who actually knew her. I had so little to work with, in fact, that my efforts to keep Hemings’s story close to the historical record primarily consisted of extrapolations from what I knew about Jefferson and life at Monticello, and from the memoirs of other enslaved people.
I suspect that I diverged farthest from the historical Sally Hemings when I made her literate. Jefferson had no injunctions against enslaved people at Monticello learning to read and write. We know that two of Hemings's brothers were literate, as were at least some of her children. If she herself could read and write, however, one would assume that she would have been the one to teach her children, but in his memoir, her and Jefferson's son, Madison, says he was taught by Jefferson's grandchildren. My decision to make Hemings literate derived far more from the moral, political and aesthetic imperatives of my story than from historical probability. Practically from the moment I first started writing about Hemings, I wanted her to be Jefferson's intellectual equal in every way, in part so that I might emphasize the injustice both of slavery itself and of Jefferson's treatment of her. And her literacy came to seem an essential element of this equality, especially once I decided to have her tell her story.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is that you have sort of mussed up the "holier than thou" image of Jefferson, who might be revered, but the fact is, he kept slaves. He was complicated and maybe a bit of a hypocrite, too. Can you talk about that please?
He was very definitely a hypocrite, and also terrifically self-absorbed and shockingly racist, at least by modern standards. And even though he was a "liberal" slaveholder, he was perfectly capable of turning a blind eye to the barbarity of his overseers. Also, rather than economize, he sold thirty of his slaves so that he might pay off his bills, and when he died, despite having referred to his enslaved workers as "my family," he left his estate in such bad financial shape that almost all of his slaves (Hemings and her children among the few exceptions) had to be sold to make good his debt, a fact that caused untold pain and horror to nearly 200 men, women and children. But at the same time, Jefferson’s words, "All men are created equal," have served as the moral and legal foundation of all liberation struggles from abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement to feminism and gay marriage. As a young lawyer, he did pro bono work on behalf of two mixed-race young men suing for their freedom. He also wrote a draft of the Virginia constitution outlawing slavery, tried to outlaw slavery in what is now the Midwest. And as president steered a law through Congress banning the importation of slaves—the single strongest Federal anti-slavery initiative prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. He was a man who simply does not make sense by modern standards.
Not long after my novel was published, I met a biographer of Jefferson who said that to understand Jefferson is to forgive him. I told the biographer that there are things about Jefferson that I can never forgive, and that they exist side by side with those qualities I most admire. And just as his best qualities in no way diminish the barbarity of his worst, so his worst characteristics in no way diminish his best. I think it is a mistake to assign people a moral worth that is an average of their virtues and weaknesses. Such averaging diminishes our ability to clearly comprehend and feel the moral nature of any individual action. We find it hard, for example, to believe “basically good” people can commit truly evil actions, or that people designated as criminals might have any good sides to their characters. None of us is an undifferentiated “average;” we are all bundles of contradiction, and to neglect this fact only diminishes our ability to understand and deal appropriately with other human beings and with ourselves.
The book is so wildly imaginative, so inventive, and it takes so many chances--what was it like writing it?
I am tempted to say it was a total joy, but that is not true. There were many moments when I was lost, confused, in despair, and afraid that I had taken on a task way beyond my abilities. But even so, all through the novel’s composition, images, scenes and ideas flowed into my head with astonishing abundance. And I was never less than fascinated by everything I had to learn and think about concerning my protagonists and their era.
When I first started to work on the book, I was very worried that the quantity of fact I had to absorb and the political controversy surrounding almost every aspect of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship might so limit my imaginative freedom that I would end up producing the literary equivalent of one of those dutiful and boring 1960s television docudramas. So once I had done enough research to feel confident writing, I decided that I would compose the novel entirely out of chronological order and switch randomly from realism to surrealism to essay to poetry and to quotation from historical documents. My hope was that in my uncertainty about how these fragments might ultimately link up, I would find enough freedom to follow even the wildest promptings of my imagination. I wrote in this fashion until I had what felt like a complete manuscript. Of course, once I arranged all the pieces into something like a coherent order and then read them over, I discovered that much of what I had written was just garbage and should be cut, and that I had many more scenes to write and a huge amount of research to do. From that point on, most of what I did was correct the weaknesses of what I had already written. But even so, those first chaotic months of composition did provide my book with an eccentric and capacious structure that seems to have served me well throughout all my years writing.
What's obsessing you now and why?
The longer I worked on THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS, the more I came to feel that it was about the ways in which the human race accommodates evil. So now I am exploring that theme in a novel about an "Aryan" psychoanalyst and his Jewish daughter in Nazi Germany—and maybe that is all I should say about that book for now. I am, after all, still worried about limiting my imaginative freedom!
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Well, the most common question I get when I discuss my book in public is whether I think Jefferson raped Hemings. And my answer is: Yes—but with qualifications.
When we say that any sexual relationship between master and slave is rape we are making what we might call a clarifying oversimplification—one that helps us see a complex situation more clearly, just as the reduction of a mass of economic data to a single line on a graph can give us a clearer idea of how the economy is doing. When we define rape as a sexual encounter to which one partner is not truly free to consent, we are identifying the injustice and cruelty, not just of violent sexual assault, but, at least potentially, of any sexual encounter in which there is an imbalance of power, including sex between a boss and employee, a teacher and student, and even some marital partners. Obviously, not all of these situations are necessarily rape under any definition. And even those that can legitimately be defined as rape are not equally easy to recognize as such, to the point that some of these encounters might even be perceived as wholly positive experiences by the people participating in them. By modern standards, for example, an eighteenth century marriage was alarmingly close to slavery for women, but that didn’t stop Jane Austen (Hemings’s almost exact contemporary) from portraying marriage as the happiest of fates for her protagonists.
When I first began writing about Hemings and Jefferson, my assumption was that their “relationship” had been little more than rape in the most classic sense. But as I began to do research, I discovered evidence that their thirty-seven years together might have had more positive dimensions. For example, when Hemings left Monticello after Jefferson’s death, she took his spectacles, inkwell and shoe buckle, which she gave to their son, Madison, who gave them, in turn, to his daughter. If Hemings had seen her relationship with Jefferson as nothing more than a monstrously prolonged rape, why would she want theses intimate tokens of his physical being? And why would they become heirlooms within her family? Also, Hemings was the offspring of a sexual relationship between an enslaved woman and Jefferson’s father-in-law, which is to say that she was the half-sister Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Jefferson loved Martha so dearly that after her death his friends thought he was being driven mad by grief. And so it is at the very least possible that, years later, some of his tender regard for his wife might have been extended to her sister.
There is a fair bit of other circumstantial evidence that Hemings and Jefferson’s interaction might have had positive dimensions, though none of it negates the huge power differential between them and therefore the notion that their sexual relations can be classified as rape. But just as I had been inspired by Jefferson’s Jekyll-and-Hyde moral nature, so the possibility that his relationship with Hemings might have been simultaneously contemptible and, to some degree, positive suggested all sorts of fascinating dramatic, psychological and philosophical possibilities. If we consider, for example, that over their decades together Hemings might have viewed Jefferson as something other than her rapist, how then should we interpret her feeling for him? Could it have been love? Was it the Stockholm Syndrome (that tendency of kidnapping victims to develop positive feelings for their captors)? Or was it something in between? And if the latter, how do we define that that feeling? Is it good? Is it bad? Or at what point does a beautiful and empowering emotional bond switch over into a pathological attachment? These questions terrifically excited me, for they meant that by presenting Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship in a more ambiguous light, I would be able to explore the underbelly of an emotion that humanity has venerated for millennia.
The truth is that I have always been drawn to such ambiguity in my fiction. One of my main goals when I construct any narrative is to take my readers one small, perfectly believable step after another to a point where they might say, “Wait a second! What’s going on here? Is this true? I don’t know what to think!” I find such moments terrifically rich, because it is exactly when readers don’t know what’s true that they think their hardest and are most likely to come up with valuable insights. Had I chosen to base my novel on either of the two most common assumptions about Hemings and Jefferson (that he was a straight-out rapist or that they were in love), I would not have been giving my readers anything they did not already have, nor would I have stimulated productive thought. My hope is that by making my portrayal of the relationship an amalgam of both assumptions (as well as of many other possibly contradictory factors), I might be able to accomplish something like what I think James Baldwin meant when he said that art’s purpose is to “lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” It is, of course, immensely important that we constantly struggle to reach new understandings of ourselves and of the world. But it is also important for us to remember that every new understanding creates a new form of blindness. The world is too complex for us ever to fully grasp, and so our search for truth must be endless.