Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

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A Year in Reading: Simeon Marsalis

William Faulkner
Books provide me an escape from the horrors of our modern reality until they call me back to what I am trying to escape. When I read the work of authors who captivate me, as Faulkner’s work does, I feel there is something underneath the text the writer is communicating. Here, I must add that I am captivated by things that contain content I dislike. For a more nuanced explanation of this phenomena, read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992).

I was reading an early draft of Zachary Lazar’s Vengeance (2018) when my friend told me that my novel, As Lie Is to Grin (2017) reminded them of Absalom, Absalom! (1936). I had not read this book, and was embarrassed by the fact, so I went to my local bookstore to find a copy.

Faulkner had taken great care in the naming of places. The city where Sutpen finds his first wife is called Jefferson. Every time I saw Jefferson, the fictitious town began to take on a historic meaning. Every time he wrote Jefferson, I began to wonder if the whole tale about Sutpen was not a thinly veiled psychoanalysis of Thomas Jefferson and his offspring. So distracted was I by this presumption that I went to a bookstore in my old neighborhood, to see if this link were true.

In my hands was Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy (1997). It was supplemented by DNA evidence, which confirmed the theory that our founding father had, in fact, had children with his wife’s sister (after her death), who was one of his slaves. We had been robbed of history because Jefferson had tried to conceal the unseemly parts of his life with falsified legal documents and delayed freedoms. I wanted to get closer to Jefferson, so I went back to the bookstore, and picked up something he had written.

Although, The Jefferson Bible: The Life & Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1803), was not written by the former president, but edited by him. The Jefferson Bible was a combination of verses from a select few gospels that told the story of Jesus Christ, without mention of (what Jefferson perceived to be) the fantastical. The narrative fits within the Founding Father’s grasp of reality, underneath that apathetic God-head.

The tale begins with Jesus’s parents being taxed. In the end, there was no resurrection. This was not what interested me though, what was in my brain then were these three texts, all-in-one. The City of Jefferson, or the person, peaked between lines 38 and 39 of Book LXVIII in a wildly confused man on a cross, calling out to a dead prophet, Elias.

Clarice Lispector
I made a new friend in late February. She gave me The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (2015) translated by Katrina Dodson. It was around this time that I had been walking around New York City, with my head in Sharifa Rhodes Pitt’s Harlem Is Nowhere (2011), so my memory of Lispector’s stories was incomplete. I do remember, “Explanation.” I laughed out loud. She wrote (Dodson translated), “Someone read my stories and said that’s not literature, it’s trash. I agree. But there’s a time for everything.”

I purchased Machado De Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881, translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1998) and Hilda Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D (1982, translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo in 2012). John Keene wrote the introduction, which was funny, because I had just finished his Counternarratives (2016). Hilst’s work reminded me of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (1964, translated by Idra Novey in 2012)—this made me pick up my copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915, translated by John R. Williams in 2011), again. Although, it is hard for me to get through that story now, with all of these other words, from another world, on top of it. Not that the work seems less modern, but I could not get back to the original feeling I’d had when I first read it. Or so it seemed, on certain afternoons.

Washington Irving
There was one book that stalled my reading in 2017: Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809). I was trying to finish reading it before my stay in New Orleans was to end, this June. Irving had created a character, Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was retelling the history of New York from the beginning of the universe. It was written in lofty prose to mock the Historical Societies of the time. From their pretenses about the origin of man and race to the way they quoted from unreliable yet primary sources, Irving had crafted a witty tale in which the pioneers were would-be-dictators, drunks, and dullards. I can imagine that the publishing of this work meant a great deal to Irving. The year that it was published, the 24-year-old was mourning the loss of his 17-year-old wife.

To drive sales, Irving took out advertisements in New York’s newspapers declaring that an old Dutch Historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, had gone missing. The number to Knickerbocker’s hotel was listed for any who had information. Some days passed. Irving took out more ads in the paper declaring, We have not found Knickerbocker, but we have found his manuscript, an inexhaustible history of New York, which we will publish to recoup the cost of his stay. Needless to say, the history was Irving’s novel.

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2010’s Literary Geniuses

This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $500,000, “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:

If you weren’t already aware that The Wire was a special TV show, then perhaps its creator David Simon receiving a genius grant will persuade you. The show and its creator have already been written up and effusively praised by cultural arbiters like the New Yorker, the series has been analyzed in academic journals, and the travails of McNulty, Bunk, Omar and the rest are now the subject of numerous college courses, so the conferring of geniusness on this particular corner of the small screen should really come as no surprise, a final confirmation of The Wire’s unique contribution to the medium and to the culture at large. We include Simon in the “literary” camp of the latest crop of geniuses because he and his show have been of enduring interest to the literary set (for example). Simon’s credits also include Homicide: Life on the Streets and his new series Treme.

Yiyun Li has been having a good year. First she was named to the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list, and now she has joined some very esteemed company (Deborah Eisenberg, Aleksandar Hemon, Edward P. Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Powers, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, etc.) among the few dozen literary writers who have been honored by the MacArthur Foundation over the years. Li’s stories are typically set in her native China and she wields a darkness and weightiness of tone that she has used to carve out a place for herself among the broader community of first generation immigrant writers. Her debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers came out in 2005, followed by a novel, The Vagrants, and then another collection of stories this fall, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Li participated in our “Best of the Millennium” series last year, and wrote up Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses for us.

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed deserves much of the credit for our reconsideration of Thomas Jefferson over the last two decades, particularly his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and the overall implications of slave ownership among the country’s founding fathers. The Harvard law professor’s books on the topic include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The latter book won Gordon-Reed the National Book Award in 2008.

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