Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A New Spin on Nation's Treasured History : Books: It's a story of sex, slavery and a popular President. And Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel about Thomas Jefferson may be more than fiction.

August 30, 1994|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — When we last saw Tom and Sally, they were back on the farm, entertaining friends, watching their children grow up and slowly, inexorably, going broke.

He was, of course, our improvident third President, Thomas Jefferson, settling into uneasy retirement at Monticello, his northern Virginia plantation.

And she was the mysterious Sally Hemings, a Monticello slave, with whom, according to some historians, Jefferson had seven children.

"She's a woman who's been erased from American history for no good reason except that she was inconvenient," says writer Barbara Chase-Riboud, whose second novel about Hemings and her offspring will be released in October.

The titillating story of sex, slavery and the President has been gossiped about, indignantly dismissed and periodically resurrected since 1802, when a Virginia newspaper reported scandalous charges of miscegenation during Jefferson's first term in the White House. It was America's first presidential character controversy.

With Chase-Riboud's book about to surface and a new Merchant-Ivory movie, "Jefferson in Paris," complete with an on-screen Sally-and-Tom liaison, coming out early next year, chroniclers are bracing for a new round of an old debate.

"It's all kind of tiresome by now," grumps Daniel P. Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello as a museum and national monument. "Nobody has advanced much new evidence, but some people seem to be absolutely fixated on it."

Nothing has given the story more of a popular buzz in recent years than Chase-Riboud's 1979 best-selling novel, "Sally Hemings"; her sharp portrayals of an American icon and his impressionable servant gave the tale a strong whiff of plausibility.

Now, Chase-Riboud, a Philadelphia native who has lived in Paris for most of the past 33 years, revisits the story in "The President's Daughter," which follows the meandering life of Harriet Hemings, Tom and Sally's fifth putative child, a runaway slave living in Philadelphia and passing for white. Along with the new book, Ballantine Books is re-releasing the first one in a paperback edition.

*

Recently, there has been something of a feverish glow about the ever-busy Chase-Riboud, like an extraterrestrial body hurtling through the atmosphere. A successful sculptor and an award-winning poet, as well as the author of four historical novels, she is up to her neck in artistic projects.

But nothing has consumed Chase-Riboud in the past 15 years as much as her championing of Sally Hemings. It's as if the ghost of the often-maligned slave had somehow reached through the ether and latched onto the novelist, refusing to let go until her claim to legitimacy was acknowledged.

At times, Hemings' presence has seemed downright eerie. As when Chase-Riboud selected a name for a character in the new book--a slave girl freed by Harriet Hemings and brought to Philadelphia. Chase-Riboud settled on Thenia, for its antiquated, classical sound.

She was almost finished with the book, she says, when she got word from a Virginia researcher that a newly discovered 1799 letter from Jefferson announced the news that a child had been born to Sally Hemings. Her name? Thenia.

"Now that I don't know how to explain," Chase-Riboud says. "It's strictly voodoo."

In the new novel, Chase-Riboud once again uses the theme of slavery for a bitter rumination on America's preoccupation with race. Jefferson, the proverbial "framer" of the Declaration of Independence, serves as a kind of Rosetta stone for the race issue, she says.

"He embodies the American identity. Anything that touches him, or his relationship with the world, touches that identity."

The Tom-and-Sally scenario is scornfully dismissed as "totally out of character" by the patrician historians who guard the Jefferson legacy. But the same historians acknowledge that Jefferson once propositioned a friend's wife and that, while in France, he engaged in an affair with a married English woman. Both of those women were white.

"What they're saying is that Thomas Jefferson could never have done anything so ignoble as to fall in love with a black woman," Chase-Riboud says.

*

In a life that itself often sounds like the plot of a romantic novel, Chase-Riboud, a slim woman with high cheekbones, has always been quick to challenge those kinds of assumptions.

One of her bitterest memories is being accused by a fifth-grade teacher of plagiarizing a poem. "I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday," says Chase-Riboud, draped on a couch in her elegantly informal apartment in the Montparnasse section of Paris. "She wanted me to confess in front of the entire class."

Enter Vivian Brathwaite Chase, the girl's Canadian-born mother, a descendant of fugitive slaves with an unshakable belief in her daughter's abilities. After what Chase-Riboud calls a historic fight in the principal's office, "My mother said she'd never send me back to the school again and she never did."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|