A new historical novel about Thomas Jefferson is raising eyebrows.
Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, which came out on Tuesday, is about our third president’s relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave. DNA evidence has proved that Jefferson and Hemings had six children together while Jefferson kept Hemings enslaved — and Jefferson also enslaved their children, freeing them one by one as they came of age. To further complicate matters, Sally Hemings was a half-sister to Jefferson’s late wife, the product of a relationship between Jefferson's father-in-law and one of his slaves.
By all accounts, Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Hemings spanned several decades, beginning when Hemings was a teenager and Jefferson was in his 40s. It was not, in any sense of the word, consensual: Hemings was a child, and Jefferson literally owned her; she was not in any position to give or withhold consent. What Jefferson did to Hemings was rape.
But Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, judging from early reviews, is most interested in exploring potential ambiguities of their relationship. The book wonders: Did Hemings perhaps enjoy it? To what extent was she complicit?
According to Kirkus, in this novel Hemings enthusiastically consents to the relationship: "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 … she whispers that she would like that, too. …"
NPR quotes a passage in which she whispers ecstatically to Jefferson, "I want us always to be as we are here … where we are only our eyes, our hands, those parts of us made for each other by nature, where our only words are the ones we whisper in the little caves we make between pillow, cheek and lips."
The Washington Post cites O’Connor’s assertion in the afterword that "Hemings’s feelings for Jefferson might well have fallen somewhere along the spectrum between love and Stockholm syndrome."
These early reviews are, by and large, positive. The book shows "The agonizing crashing together of love and slavery," writes NPR, observing that "O'Connor has the insight to put them side by side, and the result is searing and even sometimes beautiful." The Washington Post, which acknowledges that the book’s treatment of Hemings leads to its "most troubled and troubling chapters," concludes that "O'Connor's deeply humane treatment of Sally, whose actual thoughts will never be known to us, is the novel's most haunting accomplishment."
And Kirkus — though it declares the book's treatment of Hemings "problematic" — decides that in "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."
Twitter is less enthusiastic, however.
"Thomas Jefferson was a rapist," writes Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay:
Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. Why can't y'all just accept that? He's been dead for a minute. It's okay to admit the truth.— roxane gay (@rgay) April 7, 2016
Says Kate Harding, the author of Asking for It:
"We can't know what Sally Hemings really wanted." GONNA GO AHEAD AND GUESS "FREEDOM" WAS HIGH ON THE LIST— Kate Harding (@KateHarding) April 7, 2016
And one more:
I'm sorry, but "maybe she wanted it, maybe she liked it" is not a new insight. https://t.co/HvJxj8g07N— Betsy Phillips (@AuntB) April 7, 2016
It is the fantasy of a lot of rapists, the fantasy of a lot of slave holders--that the destructive thing they do isn't really.— Betsy Phillips (@AuntB) April 7, 2016
This controversy is merely the most recent example of Jefferson being pushed off his pedestal as the formerly unassailable father of American progressivism. As it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the fact that he repeatedly raped a child whom he owned, he's gone from American demigod to American demon. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is unlikely to change that view.