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Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Riboud. New York. 1979. Viking Press. hardcover. 348 pages. June 1979.  Jacket painting by Cornelia Gray. 0670616052.

 

0670616052FROM THE PUBLISHER -

 

 

   One of the greatest love stories in American history is also one of the least known, and most controversial. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, had a mistress for thirty-eight years, whom he loved and lived with until he died, the beautiful and elusive Sally Hemings. But it was not simply that Jefferson had a mistress that provoked the scandal of the times; it was that Sally Hemings was a quadroon slave, and that Jefferson fathered a slave family, many of whose descendents, known and unknown, are alive today. In this moving novel, which spans two continents, sixty years, and seven presidencies, Barbara Chase-Riboud re-creates a love story, based on the documents and evidence of the day but giving free rein to the novelist’s imagination. The story opens in the Paris of 1787, two scant years before the French Revolution and but a decade after the start of our own, where Thomas Jefferson is serving as the American ambassador to the court of France. A widower, Jefferson had brought his elder daughter, Martha, to France with him, but now he decides to bring over his younger daughter, Polly, as well. Sent with her as maid and servant is fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings. Over the next several months Jefferson grows increasingly infatuated with his slave, and before long becomes her lover. Highly intelligent and sensitive, and increasingly educated and sophisticated through her Paris sojourn, Sally Hemings could have opted not to return to America when Jefferson was called home, could have chosen freedom on the basis that slavery had been abolished on French soil. Bit she did return with Jefferson to Monticello, thus reenslaving herself to him. She never left Monticello again, and Jefferson, despite pressures to do so, did not remarry; the reason, no doubt, was Sally Hemings. Woven into this rich and complex narrative of love and enslavement is the story of the early Republic and of the personages of Aaron Burr, Dolley and James Madison, John and Abigail Adams, and John Trumbull. And like a series of somber counterpoints to the compelling love story are three salient themes: the slave rebellions of Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner; murders, those of George Wythe, Jefferson’s old professor and benefactor, and of George, the Lewis slave in Kentucky; and, above all, survival, that of Sally Hemings but also that of her indomitable mother, Elizabeth. Here were two generations of slave mistresses: Sally Hemings, mistress to a president, and her mother, mistress to a president’s father-in-law. The strange and complex ties between these two American families - the Jeffersons and the Hemingses, one white, one black—form in a sense the underside of our history. In this brilliant novel, Barbara Chase-Riboud presents the remarkable love story of Jefferson and Hemings as a poignant, tragic, and unforgettable addendum to the history of the races, and of the sexes, in America.

 

Chase Riboud BarbaraBarbara Chase-Riboud (born June 26, 1939) is an American novelist, poet, sculptor and visual artist best known for her historical fiction. Much of her work has explored themes related to slavery and exploitation. Chase-Riboud attained international recognition with the publication of her first novel, SALLY HEMINGS, in 1979. The novel has been described as the ‘first full blown imagining’ of Hemings' life as a slave and her relationship with Jefferson. In addition to stimulating considerable controversy, the book earned Chase-Riboud the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best novel written by an American woman. She has received numerous honors for her work, including the Carl Sandburg Prize for poetry and the Women's Caucus for Art's lifetime achievement award. In 1965, she became the first American woman to visit the People's Republic of China after the revolution and in 1996, she was knighted by the French Government and received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

 

 


 

 

 


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