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Loving the Forbidden Woman: An Overview

Listen to "The Official Narrative Springs a Leak" (15 minutes):

Exactly one century post-Parton, Fawn Brodie dealt the official narrative of the Jefferson-Hemings (non-)relationship its first serious blow. In her best-selling 1974 Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, historian Brodie sought to break the image of Jefferson "as a somewhat monkish, abstemious, continent, and virtually passionless president" fostered by, according to her, his somewhat pathological canonization by the Jefferson Establishment. "Does a man's sexuality atrophy at thirty-nine?" she asks, no doubt facetiously. For Brodie, "Jefferson's affection for Maria Cosway [more on her in episode 11] was not casual at all," Madison Hemings's memoir was not to be "almost totally ignored," and a liaison with Sally Hemings not "unutterably taboo." For Brodie, Jefferson was not the feminine man of reason with the snow-broth blood of the canonical image, and Sally was "supremely ready for the first great love of her life." "If the story of the Sally Hemings liaison be true, as I believe it is," Brodie writes, "it represents not scandalous debauchery with an innocent slave victim, as the Federalists and later the abolitionists insisted, but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the slave woman much private happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years."

In this episode, then, Brodie breaks the restrictive dichotomy between the puritanical Jefferson beholden to the vow of celibacy made to his beloved dying wife and the profligate Jefferson beholden only to his ever-living lust -- the "casual debaucher" with his "Congo harem" -- by offering a third alternative, namely, that Jefferson "was a man richly endowed with warmth and passion but trapped in a society which savagely punished miscegenation, a man, moreover, whose psychic fate it was to fall in love with the forbidden woman." And his "serious passion" for and with Sally was not pursued and enjoyed without serious consequence -- Jefferson endured "suffering, shame, and even political paralysis in regard to [his] agitation for emancipation." For to free Sally was to lose her. The "ineffable tenderness" of Jefferson's letters to Cosway -- "the most remarkable collection of love letters in the history of the American presidency" -- demonstrates for Brodie that "something of significance happened in Paris," busting the sentimental legend wrapped around Jefferson by his chivalrous male admirers that "one great passion fills a whole life until death." For Brodie, Jefferson had a "continuing capacity to love," further evidenced by the second something of significance to happen in Paris, his connection with the forbidden Sally.

But on what evidence did Brodie base a claim so radically different than preceding biographers? For one thing, and fundamentally, Brodie accepts Madison Hemings's claim of Jefferson's paternity of all Sally's children and the "extraordinary privileges" Jefferson granted her and the "solemn pledge" he made to her to induce her to return from freedom in Paris to slavery in Virginia. In fact, she reprints his memoir for the first time since its original publication in 1873. Brodie's overarching approach, however, is grounded in psychohistory or, more specifically, psychobiography, that is, biography that makes substantial use of psychological theory and knowledge, and she even had conversations with psychohistory guru Erik Erikson while preparing the book. Brodie is after Jefferson's "inner life," his "intimate life" as her sub-title makes explicit.

This approach is risky. George Will famously defined psychobiography thusly: "the large deeds of great individuals are 'explained' with reference to some hitherto unsuspected sexual inclination or incapacity, which in turn is 'explained' by some slight the individual suffered at a tender age -- say 7, when his mother took away a lollipop." And critics were wary. Garry Wills, for example, ripped Brodie for "her obsession with all the things she can find or invent about Jefferson's sex life. Since that life does not seem a very extensive or active one, Ms. Brodie has to use whatever hints she can contrive. In particular, she reads practically the whole Jeffersonian corpus as a secret code referring to what is presented as the longest, most stable, most satisfying love in Jefferson's life--that with Sally Hemings."

What does Brodie's evidence look like? Let's look at some examples. Brodie finds evidence in Jefferson's diary that he is subconsciously thinking about Sally when he uses the word "mulatto" eight times more frequently after she arrives in Paris than before and in half the number of pages. Also, in writing to Cosway about the deep impression that Adriaen Van der Werff's "Sarah delivering Agar to Abraham" had on him, Brodie insinuates that in the painting Jefferson recognized Sally as Agar the slave girl, he as Abraham the patriarch, and his dead wife as Sarah authorizing the relationship. Further evidence is the very substantial sum of money Jefferson paid for Sally's inoculation and clothing -- exorbitant expenses of a personal nature for a servant. Furthermore, Brodie wonders whether Jefferson and Sally exchanged letters while he was away in Holland and Germany, only to find that "The one record that might illuminate this, the letter-index volume recording Jefferson's incoming and outgoing letters for this critical year of 1788, has disappeared." "It is," she reveals suspiciously, "the only volume missing in the whole forty-three-year epistolary record" (emphasis added). As one last example here, Brodie even suggests that Jefferson daughter Martha's desire to be a nun was designed to spite her father (who was not a religious man) when she found out about his relationship with Sally.

Brodie told her publisher at Norton, "The three reviewers I most dread are Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, and Julian Boyd" -- the living members of the Jefferson Establishment. Such prescience. Malone did not review the book, but he attacked her craftily and obliquely by publishing and positively contextualizing Ellen Randolph Coolidge's letter, exhibit A for the defense, and negatively contextualizing Madison Hemings's memoir, exhibit A for the prosecution. Neither Peterson or Boyd reviewed the book either, but the views of all three were made known through a vigorous speech by Virginius Dabney (a descendant of Martha Jefferson with a wonderfully auspicious given name) on the eve of the Bicentennial at William and Mary (Jefferson's alma mater) that was reported on in Time. Invoking Malone, Peterson, and Boyd like Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as "the three greatest living authorities on Thomas Jefferson," Dabney reported the common judgment that Brodie is a "determined woman" with an "obsessive theory," who carries psychological speculation to the "point of absurdity" and tracks through the evidence "like a hound in pursuit of game." Her work is like scribbling graffiti on Jefferson's statue -- dirty words hard to erase but ultimately unable to rob Jefferson of his laurels. The man she describes is "unrecognizable," and "among the whole chorus of adulatory critics . . . not a single Jefferson scholar is to be found."

The negative criticism was not localized to Jefferson country or as long in coming. Garry Wills immediately greeted Brodie's work opening weekend with a scathing review in the prestigious New York Review of Books. Wills rips Brodie's style apart, saying, for instance, that she uses a "hint-and-run method--to ask a rhetorical question, and then proceed on the assumption that it has been settled in her favor, making the first surmise a basis for second and third ones, in a towering rickety structure of unsupported conjecture." But, making an interesting distinction, it is not Brodie's suggestion of Jefferson's sex with the slave but his love of her that riles Wills, for he sees Sally, "apparently pleasing and obviously discreet," no more than "a healthy and obliging prostitute who could be suitably rewarded but would make no importunate demands." On the other hand, fellow negative critic Clifford Egan dwells damningly on Brodie's manifold factual errors on the kinds of details so precious to sub-specialty experts. For instance, "The maritime restrictions of the Napoleonic era baffle her," he says smugly, attempting to draw professional blood. As we saw, Virginius Dabney indicts Brodie's patriotism before the Bicentennial altar, and John Chester Miller, in the first major work on Jefferson and slavery after Brodie -- a work he says "imposed" on him by the "gloss of verisimilitude" Brodie put on the old "political canard" -- excoriates, among other things, her post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era "compulsion to belittle the great men of the past." In short, the iconoclastic Brodie takes a beating.

Despite the negative criticism from the scholars, Brodie's book was a smashing popular success, even inspiring some film and television proposals. This first punch sent the official narrative reeling. The story was still about Jefferson, however. In her 1970 "Political Hero" article, Brodie said that the question was what would the certitude of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship do to his "heroic image." His heroic image. Her answer: "As for his future as a hero, I am confident, as with the future of Lincoln--whose genius and compassion also rise above his ambivalences--there is no grave danger. But for the specific nature of his future image--there we may well see continuing controversy, endless searching, disenchantment and re-enchantment, and perhaps even a recapture of his essential masculinity." The relationship might, in fact, turn out "to represent not a tragic flaw in Jefferson but evidence of psychic health." Good. But for Brodie the story was still about Jefferson.

As we suggested in the last episode, however, a new dynamic is gaining traction. If, as Brodie maintains, Jefferson fell in love with Sally, then she must be loveable. This woman who, according to John Chester Miller, is "hardly more than a name," must, turning Douglass Adair back on himself, be as "delectable" as Maria Cosway. This woman who enjoyed private happiness with Jefferson for thirty-eight years must certainly, as Pearl Graham, whom Brodie consulted in preparatory stages of her work, said, be "no casual light o' love." In short, Brodie's historical work opened a wide door for a fictional work to resurrect this woman who disappeared from history in 1832. In 1979 African American novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud's similarly popular Sally Hemings: A Novel depicts Jefferson and Hemings in a full-range of interactions from her anticipation of their first love-making to her self-reflection and self-indictment after Jefferson's death. In her dramatization of the relationship, for instance, Chase-Riboud represents Jefferson struggling to reconcile his failure to exclude slavery from the final version of the Declaration of Independence with the reality that he would never have known or been able to love Sally if slavery did not exist. This is only just one example of how Chase-Riboud embellishes and deepens the romantic relationship between Hemings and Jefferson authorized by Brodie's groundwork. Soon the story would be more about Sally.