Sally Hemings: A Novel

Overview

One of the greatest love stories in American history is also one of the most controversial. Thomas Jefferson had a mistress for 38 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 such a scandal in both his time and ours. It was that Sally Hemings was a quadroon slave and that Jefferson fathered a slave family whose descendants are alive today. In this moving novel, originally published in 1979 and having ...

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Overview

One of the greatest love stories in American history is also one of the most controversial. Thomas Jefferson had a mistress for 38 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 such a scandal in both his time and ours. It was that Sally Hemings was a quadroon slave and that Jefferson fathered a slave family whose descendants are alive today. In this moving novel, originally published in 1979 and having sold over two million copies worldwide, Barbara Chase-Riboud re-creates one of America’s most powerful love stories, based on the documents and evidence of the day, and gives us a poignant, tragic, and unforgettable meditation on the history of race and sex in America.

A national bestseller with more than 1 million copies sold, Sally Hemings now comes to trade paperback for the first time. Barbara Chase-Ribould tells the touching story of the love affair between Thomas Jefferson and his beautiful quadroon slave. Winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best novel by an American woman.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The relationship must have been much as the author depicts it in this fine first novel: a mixture of love and hate, of tenderness and cruelty and of freedom and bondage. The book is well researched, well written, insightful, and entertaining. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal

“[An] extremely affecting and poetic first novel. Even if historical fact and careful supposition were not the story’s basis, the Jefferson-Hemings relationship the novelist has imagined would be unforgettable.” —The New Republic

“A bold undertaking. The portrait of Jefferson is brilliantly imagined.” —Larry McMurtry, New York Magazine

“Chase-Riboud, an unusually gifted writer, has taken a stunning historical idea and made it sing with life. The characters and settings–the Hemings family and the Jefferson of Paris and Monticello–are vivid. Sally Hemings is a beautiful novel: the writing is eloquent, the story haunting.” —Grand Rapids Press

“Haunting . . . powerful and touching.” —The Denver Post

“Her novelistic abilities are impressive: she writes with grace and force, has an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue, a sense of scene and a capacity to create believable and interesting characters . . . Intelligently, even brilliantly imagined.” - The New Yorker

“Exquisitely crafted . . . a sensitive life study of a truly exceptional woman: complex, courageous, irresistibly attractive.” —Cosmopolitan

“The Thomas Jefferson–Sally Hemings legend is as deeply embedded in American mythology as John Henry. Barbara Chase-Riboud has captured all of the power, pain and ironic beauty which make the legend persist. It is a very moving and human novel.” —Nathan Huggins, author of Black Odyssey

Sacred Life
Almost twenty years ago, Barbara Chase-Riboud made literary history when she published Sally Hemings. The novel spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, sold 1.6 million copies worldwide, and breathed life into an historical enigma.

Sally Hemings details one of the greatest and most controversial stories in America: the tempestuous love affair between Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, and his quadroon slave, the extravagantly beautiful Sally Hemings. Epic in proportion yet rendered in exquisite detail by a writer with the eye of a historian and the heart of a storyteller, Barbara Chase-Riboud illustrates the story of Sally Hemings&#8212Thomas Jefferson's half-stepsister, mistress, the mother of his children, and the slave he would never set free.

Sally had lived happily at Monticello, the Jefferson plantation in Virginia, for many years. It was when she was sent to join the Jeffersons in Paris, when she was fourteen and Thomas forty-four, that he fell hopelessly in love with her. "The return to Virginia and to slavery had been a shock to me. In Paris, we had both forgotten what it meant to be white or black, master or slave."

By chronicling the tempestuous lives of two families, one black and one white yet both inextricably linked, Sally Hemings shows irrefutably one of the prime peculiarities of the peculiar institution: that love and bondage often went hand in hand.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781556529450
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/1/2009
  • Series: Rediscovered Classics Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 217,866
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Chase-Riboud

Barbara Chase-Riboud is an acclaimed African-American novelist, poet, and sculptor. Her bestselling historical novels include Echo of Lions, Hottentot Venus, The President’s Daughter, and Valide.

Biography

Barbara Chase-Riboud is a Carl Sandburg Prize–winning poet and the prizewinning author of four acclaimed, widely translated historical novels, the bestselling Sally Hemings, Valide: A Novel of a Harem, Echo of Lions (about the Amistad mutiny), and The President's Daughter, a prequel to ,Sally Hemings. She is a winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and received a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government in 1996. Chase-Riboud is also a renowned sculptor whose award-winning monuments grace Lower Manhattan. She is the rare living artist honored with a personal exhibition, "The Monument Drawings," in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Born and raised in Philadelphia of Canadian American descent, she was educated at Yale University and is the recipient of numerous fellowships and honorary degrees. She divides her time between Paris, Rome, and the United States.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

Good To Know

Barbara Chase-Riboud v. DreamWorks Inc.: Chase-Riboud filed suit against DreamWorks SKG in 1988, claiming that "but for [her novel] Echo of Lions, there would be no Amistad movie." The lawsuit alleged copyright infringement, breach of implied contract and unfair competition, and sought $10 million in damages.

However, the judge ruled that while Chase-Riboud's case posed valid arguments for a civil trial, its success wasn't certain enough to justify holding a $75 million film from release. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum reported in the press as in excess of one million dollars on the eve of the Oscar nominations.

However, Chase-Ribound successfully proved that the play Dusky Sally by Granville Burgess infringed the copyrights to her historical novel Sally Hemings. The Sally Hemmings suit was won in court and resulted in a landmark copyright law protecting historical fiction and writers of historical fiction.

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 26, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    1. Education:
      B.F.A. from Temple University; M.A. in art and architecture from Yale University

Reading Group Guide

First printed 17 years ago, Sally Hemmings was greeted with controversy, vilification, and praise. Utilizing documents and historical evidence, it recreated the love story of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, and his beautiful quadroon slave, Sally Hemings. While acclaimed by many reviewers, the novel was viciously attacked by historians, who claimed that the story was not only flagrantly inaccurate, but damaging to the American self-image. Recent DNA findings on the descendants of Jefferson and Hemings have confirmed the novel's accuracy, and given new light to this moving and enlightening story.

Spanning two continents, sixty years, and seven presidencies, Sally Hemings explores the complex blend of love and hate, tenderness and cruelty, freedom and bondage, that made their lifelong liaison one of the most poignant and unforgettable chapters in American history.

 

Discussion Questions

1. Does the DNA confirmation that Thomas Jefferson fathered seven children with Sally Hemings change your view of him? If so, how, and what does Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel contribute to this view?

2. Why do you think the subject of Jefferson and Hemings' union is still controversial today?

3. Why are many historians so reluctant to embrace this fact?

4. Even though Thomas Jefferson was a president, a politician, and a writer, it was widely known throughout the Richmond-Charlottesville area that he had an ongoing relationship with his slave. Clearly a man of great power, why would Jefferson carry on a largely public love affair with Sally Hemings? What does this say about him as a manand a leader?

5. The polarities of Jefferson and Hemings' homes-Monticello and Paris, America and France-were vastly antithetical. Revolutionary Paris's views on race, love, and politics were in many ways freer and more accepting than provincial America. How do you believe these two locations affected Jefferson's thinking? And how did their various constraints and liberties encourage or condemn the two's affair?

6. The media of early America was full of muckraking and scandalous rumors. When down-and-out journalist James Callender broke the news of Hemings and her children, it became a nation-wide sensation, but then was quickly ignored or forgotten. How do you think the media of that age compares with ours, and in what ways is it different?

7. Why do you think Sally Hemings chose to stay at Monticello and bear Jefferson seven children?

 

About the Author

Barbara Chase-Riboud won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best novel by an American woman for Sally Hemings. A widely-exhibited and acclaimed sculptor as well as a writer, her novels include Echo of Lions and The President's Daughter. She divides her time between Paris and the United States.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2012

    didn't grab me

    I kept waiting for something to happen in this book. It didn't grab me I found it very dragged out and a continuous cycle of Sally being pregnant & Jefferson leaving Monticello to come back and get her pregnant again. I didn't even see what the big romance between them was. And I didn't like the fact that Sally was so content to be her masters slave and lover with no thought or decision for herself, was the real Sally this dumb? I think I wasted money purchasing this book. But this is just my opinion. Anyone thinking of buying it go right ahead maybe you will like it better than I.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2009

    Sally and Thomas

    I love every word of this book and it was so loving and stong it is one of my favorites about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. This book was about love and about what love was like for Thomas and Sally and the the fights agaist Mathar and Sally and all the love she got from her brother who she turned her back on this book is about an American Dragite and about how slavry was for Sally and Thomas.

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