April 6, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Stephen O'Connor's Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is an ambitious and thought-provoking debut novel.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"O'Connor 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. . . .this mind-expanding epic offers much to discuss."
I sing almost all the time: in the shower, when I am walking down the street, or, really, whenever I am between activities and think I am alone—although I must confess that I have also been known to whistle, hum or even sing a few words in the midst of conversation. My family is tolerant of this habit, but clearly no one derives remotely as much pleasure from my constant melodizing as I do. I try to restrain myself, but music seems always to be passing through my brain and all it takes is single instant of inattention for a tune to rise up from my vocal cords throat and escape through my mouth.
Thomas Jefferson, as it happens, had exactly the same habit. There are numerous references in the writing of those who knew him to his constant singing—in his study, on horseback or while walking around Monticello. None of these commentators seem to have been even the slightest bit annoyed by Jefferson's singing, however, no doubt because he possessed far more musical talent than I do. He was reputedly an excellent violinist (as was his and Sally Hemings's youngest child, Eston), whereas the only musical instrument I can play is a kazoo. Jefferson's singing only receives passing reference in the novel, but music is ever-present, sometimes in the text, but always, of course, in my mind.
While my novel is at least sixty percent straight-ahead realism, it also includes many dreamlike sequences, some of which are returned to numerous times throughout the book. One of these has Jefferson seated between his dear friends, James and Dolley Madison, in a theater watching a 1970s-style film docudrama about his own life. There are several references in these episodes to a generic orchestral soundtrack (which Jefferson finds both insipid and deafening), but a scene showing him in a moonlit room writing the Declaration of Independence is accompanied by the stately and slow opening to the third movement of this concerto by Archangelo Corelli, who was one of Jefferson's favorite composers.
In 1787 Sally Hemings brought Thomas Jefferson's youngest daughter, Polly, from Monticello to Paris, where he was serving as the American ambassador. During the two years that Hemings lived in Paris, she learned to speak French, became familiar with some of the most august members of Parisian high society and of the American ex-pat community, and seems to have been regarded as a friend by the friends of Polly Jefferson and her older sister Patsy. It was also in Paris that her sexual relationship with Jefferson began, most likely when she was sixteen and he was forty-six. Hemings was pregnant with Jefferson's child when she returned to Monticello in December 1789, but seems to have miscarried almost immediately. She was deeply sad for a host of reasons during the months after her return home, and would often hear her own mood reflected in the work songs of enslaved field workers. There are, of course, no recordings of the songs she might actually have been listening to, but this one sung by Abraham Powell approximates the sorrow that I imagine Hemings hearing and feeling.
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings started out as a short story called "Long Time"—a title extracted from the following lines in Sam Cooke's great Civil Rights anthem: "It's been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change is gonna come." I chose that title partly because I wanted to imbue the story with some of the weary but exalted hopefulness that makes Cooke's song so beautiful and inspiring, but also because an important theme of the story was that the injustice suffered by Hemings and all the enslaved people at Monticello was unsustainable and would pass. Indeed, the "dream" referred to in the novel's title is of Sally Heming's "invention," which starts out as something like a railroad and ends up being the whole world—a world in which Thomas Jefferson has no place and makes no sense.
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 (which are prominent among those with which I have tortured my wife, children and fellow pedestrians) 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.
All of the characters in this book, my two protagonists especially, endure terrific sorrow, but a sorrow leavened by joy—at the beauty of the natural world or of their connection to other human beings, or, for my enslaved characters, at the unmitigated justice of their determination to prevail. The particular quality such joy-within-sorrow is, I believe, expressed nowhere more clearly than in these two piercing songs by Odetta, which I first listened to on one of my father's records when I was ten years old, and which come back to me again and again whenever life seems more than I can bear and I need to find a way to keep going. They are both "negro spirituals," and, as such, the sorrow and the determination they express are occasioned, at least in part, by the manifold injustices of racism—as in these wonderfully concise and powerful opening lines of "Hold On":
Paul and Silas locked in jail,
Didn't have no one to go their bail.
Keep your hands on the plow
And hold on.
1.) I have always been deeply moved by characters who are beastlike humans or humanlike beasts—creatures like Frankenstein's monster and King Kong, but also the Minotaur, about whom I have written a story myself. I think I would have to spend a great deal of time in therapy to truly understand why such characters have such emotional resonance for me, but I know that it has something to do with the contrast between their external brutality and the tender yearnings in their hearts.
2.) One day I was listening to this song by David Byrne and St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) and I thought, "I'm going to write a scene in which Thomas Jefferson is an ape." It's in the book!
The first paragraph in the novel concludes with the following lines: "Birds have three springs inside their heads, and seven cogs, and are not actually capable of choice, and yet, all day, every day, they sing of joy's inability to outlast despair. There is something in this that Thomas Jefferson finds unspeakably beautiful." Birds and their songs are referred to constantly throughout the novel, almost anytime my characters go outside or even look out the window. No playlist connected with this book would be complete without these two "songs."
Much of this novel was written at art residencies, and especially during my three summers at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is very near Thomas Jefferson's beautiful second home, Poplar Forest, and an hour from Monticello. I love the uninterrupted writing time that art residencies provide and the stimulating conversation of the other artists. But there is one other benefit of art residencies that I have all too little of in my ordinary life: dance parties. Around 1:00 a.m., after a day in which writing about Jefferson and Hemings's relationship had left me feeling grim about humanity in general, I was dancing in VCCA's darkened library with maybe twenty of my fellow artists when Lady Gaga's voice soared out of the chest-high speakers. I can't say that her celebration of "bad romance" offered me much in the way of consolation about humanity, but there was something about leaping, swaying and singing, "I want your ugly, I want your disease," in a dark room filled with other leaping, swaying and singing people that made me ecstatically happy to be alive. That's just what good art does.
Stephen O'Connor and Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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