J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Sally Hemings in History and Fiction

Yesterday I linked to several reviews of Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Here’s one more. Last month Prof. Jill Lepore reviewed the book for The New Yorker.

Lepore spent a lot of her review on how the reports of Jefferson’s enslaved mistress made their way from rumors and newspaper articles into nineteenth-century literature:

  • Thomas Moore’s less than poetically titled poem “To Thomas Hume, Esq., M.D., From the City of Washington” (1806).
  • Frances Trollope’s travel memoir Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), surprisingly accurate about Jefferson freeing his enslaved children.
  • an allusion in Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), inspired by an unfounded rumor in Abolitionist newspapers that the President’s enslaved daughter had been sold in New Orleans.
  • William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel (1853), inspired by the same report.
This pattern resumed in the late twentieth century, especially after scholars started to consider the matter seriously again:
  • J. C. Furnas’s novel Goodbye to All That (1956).
  • Gore Vidal’s novel Burr (1973).
  • Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel Sally Hemings: A Novel (1979).
  • the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris (1995).
  • the television miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000, after the D.N.A. findings); the photo above shows that production’s stars, courtesy of the University of Virginia magazine.
Those fictional works probably reached more Americans than the nonfiction books examining the evidence.

Lepore notes that the popularity of melodramatic stories of Jefferson’s enslaved mistress served to undercut the credibility of the same story as nonfiction. The publication of Clotel made it possible for people who wished to deny the evidence to claim that Madison Hemings’s statement of 1873 had been inspired by fiction, rather than the other way around. Even Thomas Paine, earning his living in the early 1800s as a Jeffersonian journalist, tried to discredit a complaint of dishonorable behavior by the President by comparing that account to the legend of the Trojan War.

In an essay published after his death in Fame and the Founding Fathers, historian Douglass Adair wrote, “Madison Hemings’s account of his own life, and those of his mother and grandmother, reads like the plot of a lurid novel.” In fact, Hemings’s statement is remarkable for its calm tone, especially since he was describing what must have been deeply emotional circumstances and experiences.

Ironically, Adair then spun out a much more melodramatic tale about Sally Hemings:
While Sally was faithful to her lover, Peter Carr, she could not as a slave ask him to be faithful to her. . . . Carr seemingly loved his wife, and he was certainly a devoted father to the four children Hetty bore him, but his marriage did not erase his affection, his desire, his deep emotional involvement with Sally Hemings. All of Sally’s last three children were born after Peter Carr’s marriage. Despite his wedding vows, despite his affection for his wife, he found that for at least ten years after his marriage he could not divorce himself from Sally. . . .

All of the evidence points to the notion that Sally’s connection with Peter Carr was a genuine love match, exhibiting deep and lasting emotional involvements for both partners.
Oh, the drama! Actually, there’s no credible evidence pointing to any connection at all between Hemings and Peter Carr. While complaining that Madison Hemings had outlined “a lurid novel,” Adair was coming up with complete fiction to refute him.

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