Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Sally Hemings was Chase-Riboud’s first novel, though she had previously established an international reputation as a sculptor and published a book of poems, From Memphis and Peking (1974). Sally Hemings was widely and favorably reviewed when it appeared in 1979. It was a Literary Guild selection and won that year’s Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Excellence in Fiction by an American Woman.

Sally Hemings has appeared in a French edition and stimulated some critical commentary in French; Chase-Riboud has lived in France for much of her life. The surprisingly little critical attention to the novel in English has focused more on debating the historical accuracy of its premise than on literary analysis.

In her acknowledgements, Chase-Riboud links Sally Hemings to the “roots of Afro-American writing” in William Wells Brown’s Clotel: The President’s Daughter, a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), generally identified as the first novel by an African American writer, though she read Brown’s book only after completing her own. Brown’s novel is also based on the premise that Thomas Jefferson had children by a slave mistress, a premise that historian Fawn Brodie says black historians have long accepted as accurate. In imaginatively re-creating the life of Sally Hemings, Chase-Riboud gives a voice to an African American woman whom history has silenced.