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Stephen O’Connor’s profound and original novel is simultaneously an unsparing examination of the ways that slavery warped the human soul and a soaring feat of literary imagination. By turns real and surreal, it illuminates the moral and psychological contradictions that shaped the lives of its protagonists. Jefferson is both the visionary author of “all men are created equal” and an egotistical bigot who never doubts his right to own human beings. Hemings, telling her own story with fierce intelligence, struggles to make a radical assertion of her freedom and fears her rage might destroy her life.
Important and beautifully written, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is a story about the search for justice, freedom, and an ideal world—and about the survival of hope even in the midst of catastrophe.
THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS chosen a Best Book of 2016
"The most revolutionary reimagining of Jefferson’s life ever: a colossal postmodern novel that mixes time periods, voices and genres. It’s often baffling, possibly offensive and frequently bizarre, but always arrestingly brilliant."
"Everyone knows the story — or thinks they do — of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved paramour, Sally Hemings. Stephen O'Connor gives us a vision of how that relationship began (yes, in sexual assault) and, given the obvious inequities in the relationship, grew into something approaching a meeting of minds. His Sally is sharply astute, and sees Jefferson more clearly than he sees himself. Makes you wonder what their relationship would have been like if they'd met today." -- Karen Grigsby Bates
"[A]n extraordinary work of imagination — it re-creates the tormented relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings, his common-law wife, using every literary form, including essay, magical realism and Hemings’ imagined diary (Hemings was in all probability illiterate). The result is an unforgettable study of denial, the abuse of power and the immense moral bankruptcy of slavery." --Mary Ann Gwinn
So it seems that the Washington Post thinks THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS is totally hip, along with books by Annie Proulx, Colson Whitehead, Imbolo Mbue and Zadie Smith. What a surprise!
“Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings,” a novel by Stephen O’Connor.
“Boy Erased: A Memoir,” by Garrard Conley.
“Dimestore: A Writer’s Life,” by Lee Smith.
“All At Sea: A Memoir,” by Decca Aitkenhead
“A Little Life,” a novel by Hanya Yanigihara
Review: The Chicago Tribune
“Ambitious doesn't begin to describe the scope of the project O'Connor undertook. And successful doesn't begin to describe the wildly imaginative techniques he used to realize his authorial goal, which is clearly to humanize — equalize, you might say — the two members of this passionate, conflicted couple . . . What makes these literary gymnastics work is, in a word, talent . . . What justifies the risk is his insistence on using a full palette and tiny brushes to draw these characters, rejecting broad brush strokes in black and white. Rendered in all their complex, contradictory glory, Jefferson and Hemings seem to stand up on the page and demand of the reader, ‘If you found yourself in our situation, what would you have done?’"—Meredith Maran, The Chicago Tribune
SELF-DECEIVER IN CHIEF
Hemings was not only Jefferson’s slave and lover, but also his sister-in-law.
By SAM SACKS, April 1, 2016 3:12 p.m. ET
"...In hundreds of brief, pointillist chapters, Mr. O’Connor reimagines their decades-long relationship, supplementing the patchy record with invented characters and events. Disturbing his narrative are passages from archival documents, chapters of historical summary and invented interviews with Hemings’s family members. Stranger still are the dream sequences that take the story out of time to portray Jefferson as a great ape, a giant bronze monument or a present-day New Yorker who comes across Hemings on the subway. The effect is prismatic and utterly arresting....
"...Hemings is the novel’s outstanding character, eloquent and capable, morally exacting and self-aware, now overflowing with tenderness, now seething with hatred. Jefferson cuts a far more ambivalent figure, unmatched in intelligence but often paralyzed by guilt and reduced to nervous stammering (he’s a far cry from the swaggering statesman played by Daveed Diggs in the musical 'Hamilton'). Most of all he’s capable of tremendous self-deception, which deepens as he grows old and attempts to bond with the children he has had with Hemings while at the same time refusing to recognize them publicly.
It’s only in the fantasias that he is forced to reckon with his actions. In one, Jefferson attends a Hollywood blockbuster about his life and is reminded of the deathless phrases he had composed: 'All men are created equal'; 'Commerce between master and slave is despotism.' But now, as he’s idealized on the big screen, he senses the gulf between what he wrote and how he lived. Hemings sums him up best: 'Thomas Jefferson is a dreamer who doesn’t know that he is dreaming.'”
"...With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant." -- Ron Charles.
BOMB Magazine -- Artists in Conversation: Stephen O'Connor
"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."
"O’Connor could easily explore master-slave relations by presenting the Jefferson-Hemings “relationship” merely through the lens of attacker and victim. It would be the safer route for a novel whose primary narrator is a black female slave, particularly when it has been authored by a white male in the 21st century.
Instead, the Jefferson-Hemings “relationship” is much more nuanced.... O’Connor compels us to look at both the ugliness in Jefferson’s hypocrisies and the hopelessness in Hemings’s resistance.... Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings gives voice to a woman who was treated as an asterisk for too long. We must not let the next Sally Hemings wait two hundred years to be heard." -- Zakiya Harris
Browse THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS on Amazon
7x7 RESPONDS TO U.S. ELECTION 2016
Thanks to 7x7 editors Amy Bonnaffons and Axel Wilhite for inviting me to participate in this important issue.
"We have set up our rickety slings of aluminum and strap, but the parade is not coming: the shouters,
the vulvic dancers,
the somersaulting dogs—nothing but phantasms of memory and hope. And everywhere around us
the wreckage of our erased
life: paper palms wilting over ruptured hull spines, police cars in twisted pylons,
faux emeralds glinting along evacuated boulevards..."
From Eternal Return
"Human Paradox," an interview about THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS
"I’m the son of a psychoanalyst, so I’m very aware that we work on many levels simultaneously. We have this one level that we designate as 'the real world,' in which things are more or less clear, rational, explicable, verifiable. But we also operate on levels that are much murkier and often self-contradictory. I love those dreams in which a person is simultaneously your best friend and, lets say, a jackal, because we actually can have diametrically opposed feelings about people and things, just as we can act out of motives that would seem entirely incompatible... So one reason I wrote my novel the way I did was that I wanted to render some of the complexity of the real world, especially when it comes to someone like Jefferson, whose character seems such a mix of the admirable and despicable that his biographer, Joseph Ellis, called him an 'American Sphinx.'"
Also listen to Stephen O'Connor talk about fairy tales, chicken legs, falling in love, fate and the power of imagery in fiction in the Common's podcast of his conversation with Jennifer Acker.
Of the many interviews I did after the publication of THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS, this one by Gabriela Pereira for her podcast DIY MFA was by far the most intelligent, well-informed and interesting -- for me and I hope for all readers and writers. (The conversation starts at 2:10.)
O’Connor (Orphan Trains, 2001) is a brave writer. For his debut novel, he takes on an incredibly complicated, sensitive, and still-debated topic: the decades-long relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman. Its format is impressively inventive and accessible, and it suits its subject. Using traditional narrative, dream sequences, reimaginings, and excerpts from memoirs and Jefferson’s writings, it moves beyond historical fiction to demonstrate the bitter, long-lasting aftereffects of Jefferson’s moral hypocrisy. The main story line proceeds chronologically, from before their liaison’s beginnings, in 1789 Paris, through their later years at Monticello, where she bears his children and ponders her unusual situation. She and other Monticello slaves may be treated differently, but they still aren’t free. “Yes, we were lucky,” she writes in her memoir (perhaps O’Connor’s most daring fictional creation), “but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune.” Both individuals have rich interior lives and complex motivations. Jefferson publicly expresses the American ideal of liberty while awkwardly pursuing his attraction to the much-younger Sally Hemings, his late wife’s half sister. Courageous and intellectually curious, she is initially repulsed by the physical attentions of this smart, important man and feels ashamed of her ultimate acquiescence. Whimsical in places, brutally damning in others, this mind-expanding epic offers much to discuss.
— Sarah Johnson
"This brilliant, unsettling book is unrelenting in its portrayal of a relationship where all the cards were stacked against Hemings, though like all great literature, there are no absolute heroes or villains. Said my counterpart, Ron Charles of The Washington Post: 'it’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.'” -- Mary Ann Gwinn
BEFORE AND AFTER: Stephen O'Connor on LIFE ELSEWHERE
To hear STEPHEN O'CONNOR talking about the possibility of a Trump victory two days before the election and then about the grim results of the election five days afterward, please listen to the LIFE ELSEWHERE podcast available for free on iTunes.
Stephen O'Connor's segment of the 11/6/16 discussion starts at 52:20, and of the 11/13/16 discussion starts at 28:35.
For information about Life Elsewhere and Norman B, check out the link below.
THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS on the Center for Fiction's 2016 BEST FIRST NOVEL long list!
"We are pleased to announce the Long List for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize is awarded to the best debut novel of the year. We hope you'll take a closer look at this year's Long List of twenty-five books narrowed down from our excellent group of submissions, and pick up one of these worthy novels for yourself." -- The Center for Fiction
Daily Beast op-ed: "It’s Jefferson’s Ideals And Not The Flawed Man We Should Honor"
"...Gradually, over the last half century, both Jefferson’s reputation and the very ideals upon which it rests have begun to lose their luster, a process that has only accelerated during the last few years, when the manifold and enduring injustices of this nation’s grim racial history have once again inspired public outrage..." --Stephen O'Connor
"A brilliant, inventive debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings presents these two historical figures in intimate detail well beyond the historical record, and in ways sure to scandalize Jefferson worshippers. In his Author’s Note, O’Connor reminds us how little we actually know of Sally Hemings or of Jefferson’s true relationship with her. But because the author so seamlessly weaves the known historical record into this fully and believably imagined relationship, readers may be tempted to accept its story as an historical account."
Listen to Stephen O'Connor and the eminent historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf talk about Hemings and Jefferson on this amusing and informative podcast. O'Connor also reads a passage from his novel. (Free access now if you have ever bought an Audible book, and free to all later in the summer.)
Nice to get a shout out on AP from Jay Parini about "Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings," especially in connection with "Hamilton" and "Burr."
"One of the best novels I've read in years. This is O'Connor's highly inventive recreation of the relationship between Jefferson and his young slave Sally, with whom he had several children.... Vivid, enticing, brilliant." --Dannye Romine Powell
"[O'Connor] 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.... 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....[T]he 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
A Playlist for THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS
"Thomas Jefferson is an immensely complex figure in my imagination, partly a despicable bigot and hypocrite, but also a consumate idealist and, of course, the first person to articulate one of this country's most noble ideals. His famous words, "all men are created equal," not only provided crucial moral and legal support for the Civil Rights Movement, they are an essential component of the moral argument by which Jefferson is most often condemned today. To a considerable extent this entire novel is a meditation on the virtues and limitations of idealism. I have been a huge fan of Radiohead for years, and the following lines... have been associated in my mind with the gravest failures of Jefferson's idealism practically from the first word I wrote about him:
Don't get any big ideas.
They're not gonna happen.
You paint yourself white
And fill up with noise,
But there'll be something missing...."
"...The book meditates in turn on perception, justice, hatred, and evil, making visible—though never rationalizing—the profound contradictions between Jefferson's philosophical ideals and his private life. This is a challenging, illuminating, and entirely original work that's broad enough to encompass joy, penance, 'complexity, ambiguity,' and 'our muddy human souls.'"
"In brief vignettes, he transports Jefferson into a variety of modern settings — a prisoner being attacked by an abusive jailer for his hypocrisy on slavery, an art student pining for Sally in a subway car, an ape in a cage. The wildness of the settings hint at how much history is an act of imagining, but they are also stark, inventive studies in power dynamics. Making Jefferson an ape means making him a beast, and exposes his beastliness as a slaveholder: 'As long as no one thinks Thomas Jefferson is wrong, the harmony is total,' O’Connor writes."
“[F]ully 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…. O'Connor proceeds by experiment, sometimes cloaking the narrative in the language of the period, sometimes seemingly channeling James Joyce…”
BOMB Magazine's Spring Books Preview
"Stephen O’Connor’s historical-fantastical novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings may be very long but its chapters are short, dense with observation, and precisely aimed at the interior life of the titular characters. Each one reads like a prose poem—elegantly shaped, brimming with indelible images—bearing plentiful revelations about race, colonial life, power, and sexuality. Insights are rendered with abundant craft and arrive—via the author’s counter-intuitive deployment of the present tense—with bracing immediacy. This is speculative history designed to implicate the reader, as we are never far from the here and now: 'It turns out that Thomas Jefferson is neither dirigible nor cloud nor breeze, but a bronze monument hundreds of feet high, and all of us are trapped inside him, though some of us claim to have come here voluntarily.'”
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.”
UPDATED Book Jacket Copy (New Blurbs!)
A debut novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in whose story the conflict between the American ideal of equality and the realities of slavery and racism played out in the most tragic of terms.
Novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks are a part of a long tradition of American fiction that plumbs the moral and human costs of history in ways that nonfiction simply can't. Now Stephen O’Connor joins this company with a profoundly original exploration of the many ways that the institution of slavery warped the human soul, as seen through the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. O’Connor’s protagonists are rendered via scrupulously researched scenes of their lives in Paris and at Monticello that alternate with a harrowing memoir written by Hemings after Jefferson’s death, as well as with dreamlike sequences in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, Hemings fabricates an "invention" that becomes the whole world, and they run into each other "after an unimaginable length of time" on the New York City subway. O'Connor is unsparing in his rendition of the hypocrisy of the Founding Father and slaveholder who wrote "all men are created equal,” while enabling Hemings to tell her story in a way history has not allowed her to. His important and beautifully written novel is a deep moral reckoning, a story about the search for justice, freedom and an ideal world—and about the survival of hope even in the midst of catastrophe.
“A brilliant, huge-hearted act of the moral imagination. O'Connor has written a kind of quantum historical novel--simultaneously fiction and nonfiction, wave and particle. With dreamlike fluidity, the story moves from the real halls of Monticello to Jefferson's musings in the afterlife, from meditations on the phenomenology of color to what the theft of dignity means. This book creates new facts to live by; it's stranger and braver than I know how to describe. Open to any page and you will see what I mean."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
“By turns delicate and luminous, then searing and straightforward, Stephen O’Connor’s novel sings – it is an epic dream and an epic read. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson come alive in this book, beautifully imagined, and so well-rendered that they become achingly human.”
—Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award winning author of Salvage the Bones
“Expansive, riveting, and startlingly original, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings seamlessly interweaves fact and fiction to make one of the most mysterious and politically charged relationships in all of American history heartbreakingly vivid and real. A richly imagined meditation on the human capacity for self-deception and on that troubling zone between exploitation and love.”
—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train
“This is an extraordinary book, and I can’t remember reading anything like it. It imagines the most intimate aspects of slavery in the way only fiction can—everything is freshly shocking and freshly human. And its wildly original use of dreamscape, fabulism, and philosophy gives us the layers these characters deserve, as it re-invents the historical novel.”
—Joan Silber, author of Fools: Stories
”This novel is a history of oppression; it's the story of a complex relationship; it’s an American epic of Homeric proportions. Stephen O’Connor has brought into this work what I have long admired in his other writings – a wild imagination, a commitment to social and political concerns, and elegant, at times elegiac, prose. This is a tour de force.”
—Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace
Preview of THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS
A collection of excerpts from THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS can be found under an earlier title at the link to Electric Literature below. For more information about the book, visit the Viking Penguin website and search by title or author.
NEW STORY: "So I Built a Little World," written in collaboration with visual artist Martha Colburn, 7x7
"There are no windows in this room, but even so that metallic shrieking outside is so loud, it’s like something drilling into our skulls. “Is this strictly necessary?” she says, her hands covering her ears. She’s trying to make a joke, but her mouth is warped, like the mouth in a tragedy mask....."
New story in Selected Works: NEXT TO NOTHING
The Soros sisters’ eyes are the blue of lunar seas, their complexions cloud white, and their identical pageboys well-bottom black. The term “beautiful” has never been applied sincerely to either sister, though Ivy, the youngest by two years, might be deemed the better looking, because she has detectable cheekbones and a waist narrower than her hips. Isabel has very little in the way of body fat, but is square-shaped from almost any angle. Even her face is square-shaped. It’s been that way since birth....
FOR THE FULL STORY, CLICK THE LINK IN THE COLUMN TO THE RIGHT
(Originally published in CONJUNCTIONS 60 and BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2014)
New story in GUERNICA:
"The first we knew of the soldiers was their bellowing from the snow-silvered hillsides, then the thundering of their boots. They poured through our cemeteries, our stone gates, down our streets. They filled our alabaster plazas with their ignorant grunts. “They’re back!” we hissed over our kitchen fences. “Someone’s got to stop them! Something must be done!” But it was already too late...."
From "My Dreams Would Seem So Close"
"ZIGGURAT" TIMES FOUR
"The new girl sat at the computer in the corner playing Ziggurat, Panic! and U-Turn. This was in the pine-paneled section of the Labyrinth, which is where the Minotaur had been hanging out lately, mainly because he didn’t remember ever having been there before, and he liked sleeping on the pool table...."
"I Would Never Do These Things" in Conjunctions
"It seems that this story is actually happening and that I am one of the characters in it. I am at a vacation resort—rattling fan palms, turquoise harbors, chickens everywhere (crowing, making fretful clucks)—and a gigantic golden cloud is making its way toward us across the ocean. This cloud, gleaming sublimely in the vacation-bright sunshine, is death—but not just death; it is the end of the world. No one seems to know what brought this cloud into being or why the world is ending, but there is no question: When the cloud finally rolls onto our shores it will be as if none of us, and nothing we have done, seen, heard, or believed in will have ever existed...."
"Ghost" in TLR/The Literary Review
"Most people imagine ghosts as the leftovers of cancelled lives, but, in fact, they are only possible lives that never happened. That doesn’t mean ghosts exist, however. They don’t. Possibilities exist. And life is dense with possibility. But as long as something is only possible, it is nothing. Ghosts sorrow. They are haunted by the lives they might have lived. Their longing has no end..."
For the full story, click the link below:
"Con" in The Common, Issue 7
"...He was twenty-eight; she was twenty-two, but they both had the cautious gestures and expressions of people decades older. There was pain in their eyes. His showed the expectation that he would be hurt, but also an alertness to the pain of others. He was more comfortable with those who had suffered: the victims of this world. Her eyes revealed the history of her pain—but only in the form of her determination never to experience it again...."
"We Want So Much to Be Ourselves" in the NEW ENGLAND REVIEW
"Roland’s longing trailed after him as he walked, a sort of dirigible, attached by a silver filament that tugged and tugged without ever lightening his step. 'Why’s that thing always following you around?' his brother asked. 'Haven’t you already got everything you could possibly want?'...”
"OFF ON A COMET," "NOW AND AGAIN," and "BRASS RING," in NO TOKENS
I enter with my usual portable joys, my bags of will-anybody-believe-this?, my 4:00 a.m. truth.
This is a small house, gray-windowed, shedding shingles on our vast and rusted prairie. And here my actual life
murmurs amidst your cheek’s blond fog, and our hopes loom against their negatives in this altering
From "Now and Again"
NEWS: "Long Time" in BEST OF GIGANTIC
I am happy to announce that "Long Time," the 300 word story that eventually became CREATED EQUAL, an 800 page novel about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, is available for the first time since 2009 in "BEST OF GIGANTIC: Stories from the First Five Years," an anthology that also contains excellent writing by Lydia Davis, John Haskell, Etgar Keret, Sparrow, Deb Olin Unferth, Laura van den Berg, and many other fine writers. To order it as an e-book, click the blue link below.
"Sally Hemings is sleeping. She is a countryside to her children, who swoon on the fragrant breezes blowing out of her nostrils, rising off her silver-threaded hair, and wafting above her valleys and hills. All of her children are gathered around her bed, some of them kneeling on it, marveling at her sleep, some of them not believing in it, some of them feeling betrayed...."
--From "Long Time"
"X" and "All Men Are Created," PING PONG (Stories)
"Theoretically, she is of the highest importance, but practically she exists only in the negative, in the way that happiness is sometimes only the absence of pain. Let us say you have been given no choice but to leave, and, late at night, too tired to drive, you pull onto the uneven shoulder, step out onto gravel and dust: no cars for forty miles, nothing but a sliver moon and some dark mountains looming over desert...."
"The Zip" in Conjunctions: 62
"...What Marie sees is the bad haircut of a thirteen-year-old who wants to look like a rock star. And under that unruly helmet of hair, she sees dog brown eyes and lips exactly the dusky red of raspberries. She sees a long jaw just slightly uplifted by hope, and a long, slender torso hollowed by an extreme lack of confidence. She sees an odd-looking young man who could just possibly be handsome if weren’t so heartbreakingly lonely and afraid...."
"As Long as He Knows You Love Him," in WHEN FIRST I HELD YOU, ed. Brian Gresko, Berkley Books