The Smooth Handle
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings
By Stephen O’Connor
Among Thomas Jefferson’s ten “Canons for Conduct,” number nine — “take things always by their smooth handle” — best fits the man in Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings. It is question begging: a handle attached to what? Oenophile’s corkscrew, yeoman’s plow, overseer’s whip? Jefferson has ideas about them all, but what ought he to do with these things and ideas and people he has come to own and love? And what when handles splinter?
This predicament animates O’Connor’s novel about Jefferson’s long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, thirty years his junior, half-sister to his dead wife, scandal to his presidency, and mother to four of his children whom he eventually freed. To call Jefferson’s interaction with Sally a “relationship” rather than repeated rape is itself an argument, as the matter is an archival black hole of great pull and few clues.
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer-winner The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), one of three biographies O’Connor mined for his novel, brings to life Sally’s quandaries and options. We know that in 1787 Sally was chambermaid to Jefferson’s daughter in Paris where he was envoy; that in 1789 she returned to Monticello pregnant at sixteen, perhaps motivated by Jefferson’s promise to free her children and despite the chance to disappear with her brother into freedom in revolutionary France; and that she bore her master five more children over the next twenty years in Virginia. We know that Sally passed down some of Jefferson’s mementos to her children, all of whom received the freedom they were promised. We know that Jefferson hated confrontation and liked being liked, disliked slavery but enjoyed the wealth it gave him, and preferred to influence rather than domineer his favored Hemings slaves — taking the smooth handle. From these archival crumbs, can we track down anything resembling love?
Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings dramatizes this question in a culmination of career interests in failed idealists, young people in dire social circumstances, and confused lovers. Many of O’Connor’s short stories play with these themes through metafictional or supernatural conceits — a man discovering that he is a character in a Chekhov love story, for instance, or a minotaur wondering why he resists eating a girl who plays computer games inside of his labyrinth — to leave the reader as puzzled as the protagonist. In this novel, too, he braids together dozens of minor parallel storylines propelled by pleasantly odd conceits. In one, hikers are lost in woods inside of Jefferson, trying to find the place “where things are real”; in another, an eighteenth-century Jefferson watches his own biopic, annoyed with the actors and fascinated with the technology of film; in a third, a Jefferson rendered in modern profanity is trapped in a prison cell with a female guard intent upon beating his ideals out of him (she is too foul-mouthed to be Sally, but we wonder).
The effect is not the temporal loop-dee-loops of protagonists haunted by a fragmented past (as, say, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved) precisely because each storylines move forward through time in linear fashion, parallel with though distinct from one another. Instead, the confusion created by this narrative structure (a fictional “multiverse,” of sorts) is the kind that creeps out slowly from under a “what if.” What if sometime in our future, as one storyline wonders, Jefferson and Sally could wander as lovers through an exhibit dedicated to their relationship in the progressive Museum of Miscegenation? Or what if in his own time Jefferson abandoned politics and lit out for the Louisiana Territory in a canoe with Sally to document the prehistoric flora and woolly mammoths that he suspected existed there? What if they had met on the subway in New York City instead of in the colonial Piedmonts?
The sheer creativity of these scenarios, a refreshing change from historical fiction’s temptation towards an obsession with accuracy, itself feels liberating, as if we tripped unexpectedly into a hyper-textured mind unmoored from normal space-time (Jefferson’s and Sally’s as much as O’Connor’s) imagining the fullest range of possibilities for two lives. But formalistic creativity only goes so far in exploring the question of freedom in a history like this. Most readers will open the novel hoping for a glimpse of how Sally and Jefferson might have actually been. O’Connor duly winds these minor storylines around the main plot, a rather straightforward historical narrative that moves from Sally’s birth to Jefferson’s death.
We expect that those aiming to answer the question of Jefferson’s actual relationship to Hemings must walk a tightrope on subject matter so fraught in terms of race and gender, careful to deny neither Sally’s agency, slavery’s brutality, nor history’s complexity. Gordon-Reed’s portrait of a pregnant Sally in Paris bends towards power: the young girl calculates her prospects and negotiates better terms, while the author notes that those who would deny even the possibility of eventual affection between the two themselves deny Sally’s capability and carve an individual into a procrustean symbol of black suffering.
O’Connor’s Sally calculates a good deal, but less on her goods and rights and more on her own moral freedom with a deftly wielded quill (though she was most likely illiterate in real life). Sally’s autobiography, modeled after Harriet Jacobs’s autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl but more frenetic and desperate, is perhaps the most important of the novel’s several storylines. Here she confesses her fear that
everything I say about who I was and how I lived will imply that I could have lived no other life, that I was entirely dispossessed of freedom of will. The simple fact that tortures me to this very instant is that I was never without freedom of will, that at any of countless junctures I could have said, ‘No,’ and I would have lived a different life. Nothing was truly inevitable, and even when I didn’t know I was making a choice, I was — and I must bear the burden of those choices. Most troubling of all, however, are the times when I did know I was making a choice and a voice inside me told me that the choice was wrong but I didn’t listen…It spoke, and I didn’t listen, and now I am damned . . . .
Sally is something of a Puritan, diving into her inner world through a journal only to dredge up questions of moral culpability and capability.
How free was Sally, really?, many have asked, most often meaning politically and socially as they weigh historical factors. Sally was better off than most Monticello field slaves — but perhaps proximity to the master was a special kind of trial — but Jefferson was a better master than most — but can any kind of slave say no to him? O’Connor mostly sweeps aside these considerations to ask a different question: how free would Sally be even if things basically went right, even if Sally did feel affection for Jefferson? The answer is tragic in the usual sense, lovers star-crossed by a society they inherited, but also in the Calvinist sense. Much as in Massachusetts theologian Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will — a treatise reimagining the Calvinist belief in humans’ incapacity to choose God freely by cleverly arguing that our desires, phenomena over which we have little choice, always precede and shape our choices — Sally is only free to act out her desires unto damnation, even in the very act of declaring her moral autonomy.
Sally’s moral math leads back to Paris where — moving from autobiography to the novel’s main storyline — Sally’s feelings gum up her calculations like bits of e.e. cummings in computer code. She feels her nascent sexuality unfold. She feels tenderness in Jefferson’s continued grief over the death of his wife, her sister. This is not to say that Sally is a sexist caricature of a brain chained to sentiment, but that both are tangled together; she feels affection and sexuality mixed with a growing life of the mind as Jefferson teaches her to read, praises her theological acumen, marvels with her at the physics of a hot air balloon. “I don’t think I had ever felt so completely myself — the self I most wished to be,” she reflects, “as when he and I were talking.” Sally feels desire for him and feels angry that she feels thus. When Jefferson’s own feelings for her become clear, she feels at once flattered and disgusted, worried that she protests too little, captive to the inevitable outcome that meets most enslaved women in her situation, and nonetheless curious about sex. Messy in the moment, her emotions are as convoluted in retrospect. In her journal, Sally oscillates:
If I had said no, emphatically, and on every occasion when he first began to broach his intentions, he would have respected my virtue, both because he himself was ashamed of his desires…and because, as ardently carnal as his nature might have been, he was ultimately less interested in sensual pleasure than in love. This was one of his greatest weaknesses. He craved adoration…But I didn’t say no — ‘no,’ of course, being a word Negroes simply never speak to white people. That said, I could easily have conveyed my feelings without having to actually speak the word.
Sally, the paradox of a slave who cannot yet should have said no, again reveals her moral limitations in the very act of rejecting them.
She does not say no, as she confesses. But she does say yes with dignity, embracing both the power of having something that Jefferson wants and the moral superiority of resisting studied advances on a fifteen-year-old slave. “Never before did she imagine that she could be better than Thomas Jefferson,” she muses, yet “he needed something so badly [from her] that it turned him into a wordless animal.”
O’Connor is good on Sally and better on Jefferson, who even at his noblest remains something of a kid-gloved coward. Here too O’Connor rejects the allegorical option of Jefferson as white predator — which may have been easier to stomach than the pathetic one that appears between the Revolution and the Louisiana Purchase ever apologizing to Sally for his advances before pushing a bit further, steadily gushing the vocative case — “Oh Sally!” and “My sweet girl!” — while managing to be as feeble as he is slimy in his first attempt at sex as he whispers “I will be gentle. You will see. Gentle. I will make it good.” In history Thomas Jefferson is “perpetually effulgent with sunrise. But in life almost everything that Thomas Jefferson eats makes him sick.”
This portrait is not mocking; Jefferson is often kind, genuinely in love, always intelligent and idealistic. He is adamant that Sally desire him as a free and rational agent (he first realizes his attraction, significantly, while teaching her to read). It is instead a portrait of a man who believes that this is possible, someone convinced in spite of war, slavery, and pain that he inhabits a world in which “taking things by the smooth handle” constitutes meaningful advice. “Thomas Jefferson is a dreamer who doesn’t know he is dreaming. Because he is white and wealthy and has so often been lucky, his dream is a beautiful dream,” Sally herself perceives, where “his work is to rebuild the world as the beautiful place it has always actually been. He is almost done, he thinks.”
After the return to Virginia spanning Jefferson’s political work to his death in 1826, this Enlightenment faith meets moderate success when it means battling Federalists in D.C. but slowly suffocates his relationship with Sally as he remains away from Monticello, maintains stony reserve in letters at risk of interception, and grows pessimistic on the prospect of ending slavery.
Sally’s most overt rebellion is a brief tryst with a handsome field slave who, being darker, poorer, and younger than her, holds a similar social standing in relation to her as she does to Jefferson. The act reveals self-hate, but also a desire for self-mastery, for the kind of self that Jefferson awakened but could not allow. How free would Sally be even if she did love Jefferson? O’Connor’s answer is, in his own words, “somewhere along the spectrum between love and Stockholm Syndrome.”
The matter comes to a head when Jefferson’s lifelong habit of profligate spending on smooth luxuries forces his estate into bankruptcy and a mass slave auction after his death. This final scene of the novel, we discover, is the catalyst for Sally’s memoir, sparked as she watches in horror while families are cleaved. Hating whites, rejected by blacks, left behind by a dead Jefferson and the children he freed, Sally is emptied out by middle age into Virginia dust.
The most that Sally can affirm is that in Jefferson she glimpsed herself; to say no to him “would have been saying no to myself,” she reasons, while recognizing that in the process “I lost my self — if by ‘self’ we mean a way of being in the world that one can recognize as one’s own.” So she concludes her ostensibly “auto” biography, Puritanically, by submitting the self to the Master who inspired it. “Thomas. Tom. My Tom,” she murmurs, and readers squirm as she concludes that “this would be the last time I would ever have any part of him inside me.” Here the writing stops, and we wonder if any hope lingers in the line, if it is possible in the nine years of her life that remain to write an autobiography.
I’ve focused on the novel’s start and finish because they’re superb. The thick middle at times suffers from slow pacing and scenes that add to the novel’s historicity but do little to build character or plot. The depiction of Sally’s brother Jimmy, for instance, a Paris-trained cook whose vexed relationship with Jefferson drives him to drink, feels too quick and thin, a half-shot arrow. After Sally returns to Virginia, ten chapters detailing a year’s worth of hatred are too snappily resolved in a moment of riverside romance.
Readers are nourished along the way, though, by ripe images, scenes, and conceits (such strengths in a slow middle both signs, perhaps, of a practiced writer of short stories transitioning to his first novel). One fragment imagines Jefferson as a primate in a “Great Ape House…dense with the penetrating sweetness of ape shit” while another follows their son Beverly, passing for white in Virginia, as he soars away in a hot air balloon much like one that captivated his parents in Paris. After Jefferson skips their first child’s funeral, Sally treks into Virginia’s winter woods, her senses hyperactive from the cold:
First she hears a gentle ticking on the fallen leaves, and then she sees the snowflakes, millions of them, drifting between the upreaching branches of the hickories and oaks. Then she is standing by the black river, dank mustiness filling her sinuses, the hissing roar of water over stones filling her ears. The snow is heavier now, obscuring the far shore in its diagonal sweep and swirls. The world is whitening.
In the bitterness of burying their first child in frozen ground within a jam jar (a peace offering from Jefferson in France after his failed first advance) “she feels more alert and alive than she ever felt in Paris.” Stopping at the edge of a field, “the wind has stilled, and the flakes are bigger now, the size of feathers. Rocking. Drifting left, then right. Endless numbers of them, falling all around her in perfect silence. And as she watches, she feels that what she is watching is the settling of grief upon grief that has been occurring, without relent, for all the centuries since creation.” The scene, reminiscent of the ending to James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” is potent to the senses and sentiment.
One of the two most important cords is Jefferson’s recurring dreams of a mute Sally building a deafening machine that threatens to consume the world. The sentence structure of Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings contains the novel’s basic mechanics: its subject is Jefferson, dreaming about its object, Sally. The novel ultimately and ironically follows Sally’s lead in suspending the question of her own subjecthood in the limbo of her (auto?)biography. We cannot speak for her, only dream.
What is the meaning of Jefferson’s dream? The central cord features Jefferson as a color-obsessed art student in modern New York City who runs into Sally on a subway car, spending the entire screeching ride thinking of what he should say. When he realizes that she sees him, “he doesn’t know what to do or say. He has no idea what will happen when, at last, his eyes meet hers.” This ragged contingency, the novel’s final line, is Jefferson’s dream, one in which he has no idea what Sally will do or say because, quite simply, she is free.
Kenyon Gradert is a doctoral candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis.