It starts with a disembodied refrain: “I will make it good.” A few pages later, the line comes back with a twist: “I will make it good… I will be gentle.” These lines echo through Stephen O’Connor’s recent novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings. It tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s life through his imagined dreams, his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, and through discontinuous vignettes. It’s a novel with epic ambitions but limited scope. That refrain—“I will make it good… I will be gentle”—makes its most chilling appearance when Jefferson appears at 15-year-old Hemings’s bedroom door and proceeds to sexually assault her.
O’Connor presents this rape in a way that is at once vivid and detached. “He is standing beside the bed, tearing at the buttons on his breeches. She knows what is going to happen. It cannot be possible. But that makes no difference. It is happening. It is inevitable. And there it is. Like a club sticking out of him. Like a skinned fish. Like an enormous mushroom that is practically all stem.” O’Connor conveys Sally’s terror by showing the way her body goes rigid. It’s a feat of imagination, sure, and it shows that O’Connor is interested in representing the trauma and sadness of sexual violence. But it’s also gratuitously detailed, even prurient, in a way that serves to obscure the characters, not sharpen our view of them. Many people believe that sex between a slave and a master is always rape. Others believe that such a stance denies those women agency, even if they were making decisions within a dehumanizing system. O’Connor is looking for a middle ground. He condemns Jefferson for his transgressions, but tenderly illustrates the relationship that evolves thereafter.
O’Connor imagines Jefferson and Hemings’s inner lives with verve, through poetic and weighty dream sequences, and the pair work as ideas or symbols, but rarely appear as fully realized characters. Throughout the book, the narrator refers to the main characters as “Sally Hemings” and “Thomas Jefferson” every time they are mentioned, keeping them at a distance. They come to be like allegorical figures, never really moving through the world. They are corporeal only when they have sex. And when writing Sally’s diary entries or describing life at Monticello, the narration, which is sometimes slippery and contemporary, becomes more like a straightforward work of historical fiction, given over almost entirely to spare setting description and letting the story unfold through dialogue.
This is Stephen O’Connor’s first novel, but he’s been writing short stories for decades. And the novel proceeds a bit like his short stories: breezy prose that fuses a concise and self-effacing narrator’s descriptions with a character’s own assessments; a contrast between truncated sentences and flowing, rhythmic ones. O’Connor’s austerity makes even the most realistic events seem a bit like a fairy tale, and this is both a blessing and a curse for his portrayal of Jefferson.
Indeed, anyone who writes about dreams in the 21st century has to contend with two giants of the 20th: Sigmund Freud and Martin Luther King Jr. Freud developed his theories on the significance of dreams during long hours spent listening to his patients’ retelling on the couch. These dreams are individual, ways that psyche and desire manifest themselves. They are immaterial—they’re only as real as your trauma, your wound. King’s dreams were born of hours spent studying the Bible and American history. These dreams are collective, ways that people learn to sacrifice their own pleasure, comfort, or bodily integrity for the sake of a greater good. They are more material, but they’re only as real as the actions you take to move toward them.