The Mirror and Thomas Jefferson: Real People in Fiction

February 12, 2017   •   By Hayden Bennett

Arc d’X

Steve Erickson

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings

Stephen O’Connor

WHEN SUPERMAN WANTS to be alone with his thoughts, he will sometimes fly off to the Fortress of Solitude. Built in a remote mountain range and guarded by an immense door, the fortress is accessible only to him. There is a zoo, exercise equipment, and a diary where Superman can write his memoirs. The place is a waxwork museum of Superman’s psyche that, accordingly, gets weird pretty fast. Robots line the halls of the place, lifelike reproductions of nearly everyone he knows. There is a robot of Superman himself and one for each dead parent. These robots are extremely realistic in their rendering. They neither boop nor beep.

These robots are a product of what Umberto Eco calls hyperreality: a mode of representation where the thing portrayed aims not only to recreate the thing qua thing, but in its simulation, surpass it and become more. In his book of essays Travels in Hyperreality, Eco reports from, among other places, a Floridian reproduction of a European abbey, a sculptural depiction of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and Disneyland. Most hyperreal places not only reproduce an actual location but in their reproduction purport a one-uppance. Maybe the 13th-century abbey has crumbled, but take 10 bricks from the ruins and a truckload of new ones from Home Depot, and the abbey can be built better. In hyperreality, the connective tissue between what’s real and fake is blurred. The mind can be tricked. Novels in particular are a technology that can take advantage of this blurry space.

Inside a novel, a writer can build a room. A corduroy couch with a fringe can be taken from an early childhood memory, a green baize door from a Henry Green novel, dripping stalactites from a Visit Mexico! ad printed on a bus stop, and a carpet from the third-most watched video on PornHub. Details can be exaggerated and expanded. They can be shrunken and inverted and manipulated. In fiction, Madison Square Garden can be an exact reproduction of the extant stadium; or its height can be shrunk by one inch. When building a room — and by dilation, a world — a writer can make a choice about what details get taken from where, and why. Unlike film, fiction — no matter how detailed the writing gets — leaves a blank space for the reader to picture in her mind.

Cue Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the United States exists somewhere in the cultural imagination. If the phrase Thomas Jefferson in a bubble bath appears, minus any other context, we picture it. The bathing man probably looks more like a guy in a wig than anybody with a half-decent resemblance to Jefferson, but still. In the way that Adolf Eichmann or William Shakespeare or Mahatma Gandhi are familiar figures to the Western world, odds are good that, in the United States, both 10-year-olds and dusty nonagenarians alike will nod when asked if they know Jefferson’s name. A writer can manipulate this cultural cache for effect. In plenty of books, the use of a real person’s name can be nothing but a cute trick with no more substance than an animatronic bear band. Eichmann peeps through the kitchen window and sees Shakespeare baking a pie. How much the character with a real person’s name has anything to do with that person is the writer’s choice. But considering two men, named Steve and Stephen, who live on opposite coasts of the same country, and who in all likelihood do not know one another, have within 25 years each written a complicated novel featuring a Thomas Jefferson that exists simultaneously in history and dreams, in addition to alternate and mimetic fictional worlds, as far as figuring out a way to look at the Real Name in Fiction Phenomenon, Thomas Jefferson seems like a good place to start.


Most historians now agree that Jefferson had children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Whether or not Jefferson raped Hemings is unclear; in his 20-odd-thousand pages of writing, Jefferson wrote almost nothing about her. What few documents exist, in the end, only fuel the fire. Despite this dearth of historical documentation, DNA testing in 1998 did trace the Hemings lineage back to Jefferson. Historically speaking, the exact details of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings are unknown. In the past, this unknown has let historians present Jefferson as a bastion of reason, an ideal father, and a writer of important philosophical texts. More recently, scholars have politely called Jefferson a sanctimonious hypocrite and a slave driver who built his fortune on a foundation of barbarism. Knowing what happened in Jefferson’s life will never be recovered. But the point here isn’t to talk about facts. The point here is fiction.

Steve Erickson’s Arc d’X (1993) and Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings (2016) are both works of fiction, but fiction is rarely ever free of facts. Shapes and names get changed, but most fiction points back to the real. Real emotion, real trees, and a world bound by familiar laws of gravity. Using the very real Thomas Jefferson, the living man whose hand you could shake if you suddenly traveled to the 18th century, O’Connor and Erickson have built mirrors that reflect very different pictures. Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson, Steve Erickson’s, and Jefferson qua Jefferson, are all very different men, even if the same actor could play them in a movie.

About half of Stephen O’Connor’s novel reads like a well-researched work of historical fiction: a linear plot that tracks Jefferson and Hemings’s relationship over about 40 years. These pages of TJDoSH are third-person historical fiction played straight, with no metafiction, surrealism, or formal funny business. About 50 pages of the book are O’Connor’s imagined excerpts from Sally Hemings’s diary; first-person entries that cohere with the main story line of their relationship.

O’Connor moves between two different modes. The second, less-researched half of TJDoSH doesn’t follow historical script. This half is a landscape of Jefferson’s dream world, and reads like a portrait of Jefferson’s imago. In dreams, TJDoSH’s Jefferson can do anything. He can surpass time and space and have a slice of Shakespeare’s aforementioned pie. O’Connor says he wrote the dream half first, before research could interfere. Up until TJDoSH, O’Connor’s fiction career had been confined to short stories, and in this novel he’s made a collage of short fabular fiction that abuts a Hemings/Jefferson love story. The book, when it’s not following the track of history, is dreaming.

Unlike O’Connor’s Jefferson, the Jefferson of Arc d’X isn’t bound to history. Where the Jefferson in TJDoSH gets out of bed, leaves his dreams, and goes to work in the oval office, Jefferson in Arc d’X gets on a motorcycle and just rides.

Erickson often plays with real figures and animates them in his own Fortress of Solitude. Brian Eno, Barack Obama, and an adult Jesse Presley (Elvis Presley’s brother who, in real life, died stillborn), populate the pages of his fiction. They’re sometimes named, and sometimes not. Across 10 novels, Erickson (who is a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine) maybe gets closer to David Lynch than Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo or any other novelists with similar jacket copy. The Jefferson in Arc d’X, in some respects, doesn’t give a damn about Jefferson qua Jefferson. He begins there, but Erickson is too weird of a writer, and too good, to stay with him. Erickson creates a new reality using pieces of this one, and ultimately strives for Eco’s “more.”

Arc d’X starts in history, more or less plausibly. A slave in Virginia poisons the food of the master who rapes her. After she’s publicly executed, a cloud of smoke rises from her body to the sky where a five-year-old Jefferson can see it. The cloud haunts him. Years later, after Jefferson’s wife Martha dies young, he goes to Paris to become the American ambassador to France. A few months later, Sally Hemings takes a boat from Virginia, accompanying Jefferson’s daughter. After Hemings’s arrival, Jefferson goes into her room one night and rapes her. The rapes continue over the course of several nights, with Jefferson’s time in-between spent monologuing about freedom to Parisian plebeians, days before the revolution. And then, one night, after Jefferson has fallen asleep, Hemings takes a knife and stabs him. Reality bifurcates; each path along the fork is equally real. This first happens when Hemings running away through a revolution-torn Paris, and the next day Jefferson, who she thought she had killed — who she had killed — finds her, and they return to Virginia.

After a section break, Sally Hemings wakes up in a hotel next to an unnamed dead man and two cops. She’s in a futuristic church-run city set beside a looming volcano. One of the cops goes insane traveling the tunnels of a city under the city trying to figure out what exactly happened with Hemings, and why she woke up next to the body of a dead man (who the reader can intuit is Jefferson). Reality splits off again, several times, and there are doors within these realities that lead from one to the next. Toward the end, Steve Erickson shows up as a character in ’90s Berlin, where sects are attempting to rebuild the wall. He gets murdered. His killer takes his passport and leaves Berlin to travel to the United States. There, behind a door in the Arizona desert, moments before an apocalypse, he finds an old and confused Thomas Jefferson in chains.

Which is all partly just to say that to retell the plot of Arc d’X, let alone explain what the hell is going on and why, is a little crazy-making, maybe impossible. The book can be confusing, and frustrating. Where Borges’s early fiction took the form of reviews of fake novels in the Buenos Aires evening newspaper Critíca (presumably in part because the same work could be done in much less space), Arc d’X feels like Steve Erickson wrote the novel instead of physically 3-D printing the world to scale. Arc d’X is a slim 300 pages, but the world inside the book is gargantuan. By the end of Arc d’X, it’s no coincidence that Jefferson has renounced his freedom, sold himself as a slave to Sally Hemings’s brother James, and spends most of his time in a dark room with a splitting headache.

Thomas Jefferson is a ballast here, a bookend to Erickson’s wild ride. O’Connor’s Jefferson is different; in dreams, he can be anything. But turn the page, and he’s out of the dream world, and back to this one.


Maybe it’s impossible to know what the real Jefferson ate for dinner on July 7, 1763, but in TJDoSH Stephen O’Connor gets close to trying. And while for $22/hour a plucky New Yorker fact-checker could probably cross-reference Jefferson qua Jefferson and his fictional portrait, and come up with enough unanswerable queries to make a writer anxious and confused and sad, it seems likely that O’Connor could hand over a ream of research to answer why, in his novel, Jefferson is doing a particular thing on a certain day. Here is an important distinction. When a real name gets used in fiction, the name can do whatever the writer wants it to do. My mother is Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair, and everyone is named Thomas Jefferson, can all be true. A name has a thousand valences. A novel is the laboratory where a writer can have the Pope declare that the name of each rock on a mountain is Thomas Jefferson, and where each rock monologues her own thousand-page version of the Declaration of Independence, and then the frustrated reader puts down the book. Because that’s where things get hard: at the end of the day, you know and I know that the rocks are not named Thomas Jefferson. A writer’s decision to divest from the real needs to both make sense, and not suck. Thomas Jefferson can only be so much help.

In TJDoSH, Stephen O’Connor has made a man who can live in both history and dreams. Jefferson can be the historical president whose name children memorize at school, and then in his dreams, Jefferson can break free from his day job following historical identity, put on leather bar gear, and meet Erickson’s Jefferson for Klubnacht. The trouble is that while the power of the name Thomas Jefferson can lend imagined circumstances a patina of the real, the truth value of Jefferson’s historical identity in both books — i.e., whether or not Thomas Jefferson feels like a human being — relies on the blur between real and imagined, fact and fiction.

A list of dreams from TJDoSH: Jefferson sitting between James and Dolly Madison in a movie theater and watching a movie about himself; a dream of Hemings’s where she clothes a bear in frock and cap to the jeers of a menacing crowd; a visit to the museum of miscegenation; Jefferson as an ape; Jefferson as a blimp; Jefferson as a shunned lonely hologram; short essays on power; Jefferson as an art student anxiously riding the subway, who spots Hemings standing down the car, reading a book; Jefferson dreaming about Hemings’s Invention; sex scenes; Hemings’s retrospective conversations with her mother about the sex scenes with space given to Hemings’s mother’s comments about Thomas Jefferson’s “little head”; essays on color perception; a scene about making the film that (maybe) Thomas Jefferson is watching with the Madisons, in which the screenwriter tells the producer that Jefferson invented the swivel chair and if he wants to fact-check him he “can look it up on Wikipedia”; tiny people journeying inside Jefferson’s organs, one of whom turns to the other and says, “You can never get to the end of him […] He is everywhere”; statistics on 18th-century slavery and life expectancy; postmodern Q-and-A with Jefferson’s contemporaries into a tape recorder without definite setting; a prison guard verbally abusing Jefferson in a jail cell; quotations from real speeches and text.

The collage is well executed. After Jefferson ambles around as an ape at the zoo, he signs a treaty. When overlap between dream and reality does happen, it’s shifty, not explicit. Late in the book, Jefferson realizes he’s an imitation of himself. His friends and family no longer recognize him. James Madison turns him away, “I can’t talk to you,” he says. “I must not. You don’t make sense. You are a fantasy of my youth, a cloud of impossibility and hypocritical sanctimony.” Here seems to be the core of the issue. O’Connor writes, “This is when Thomas Jefferson finally understands that the nexus of perception, emotion, action, and belief that has always seemed so simply and obviously his self no longer makes sense to other people, and so he has become unbelievable.” In this accumulation, Jefferson in TJDoSH, who exercises his power to exist ubiquitously, seems to exist nowhere at all.


For Thomas Jefferson, the United States existed both as idea and reality. He attracts fictional portraits for good reason. If American identity and the problems inherent in it keep you awake at night, maybe a fictional Thomas Jefferson constructed with part real president and part of your own writerly purview and personal psychic dread will have the capability to comment on the history and current state of the United States, and — as with Eco — more.

The problems of historical fiction are worth noting. When historical fiction is rendered in scene — when you’ve got O’Connor’s Jefferson trying to directly replicate Jefferson qua Jefferson — Laurent Binet notes in his novel HHhH that “the result is often contrived and the effect the opposite of that desired: you see too clearly the strings controlling the puppets, you hear too distinctly the author’s voice in the mouths of these historical figures.” In Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, this is true. Stuck to the track of history, the truth-value of O’Connor’s Jefferson’s historical identity, which was compelling as an entry point into the novel, in the end equals the sum of its parts. It could be bad writing: O’Connor’s book has 893 exclamation points (for example). But what’s important here is that both parts of TJDoSH, dream and history, hardly talk to one another. This is different than Erickson’s Jefferson, who, bound and shackled, shoulders consequence. The Jefferson in TJDoSH lives in a house with walls made of materials that, due to the current and extant laws of physics, don’t stand up. If TJDoSH altered the laws of gravity (as Erickson basically does), maybe it could work, but dreams feel too far away from the real. One Stephen asks us to wake up. One’s labyrinth will never end.

Written language is a tool that can comment on the real world. An imagined Thomas Jefferson can create an understanding of the real man, and vice versa: the name itself can be used as a door that opens to a new personal and cultural imagination, divergent from the source. In fiction, truth value can take on a new meaning. This is Freud’s idea of a precious reflection. Fantasies are molded into truths of a new kind. The man steps out of the mirror and runs down the road.


Ronald Reagan is a penis. More specifically, in Chester Brown’s graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown, Ronald Reagan gets grafted onto the eponymous clown’s member. The logic makes a surreal sense. In a country where Americans cannot stop consuming, shit piles up in the streets and clogs the American infrastructure. One day, a farmer finds a portal to another dimension. The American government finds the hole a convenient waste management solution and dumps the shit there. In a presidential slip-up (boner, if you want) Reagan looks at the hole too closely and falls inside; in another dimension, his head winds up on the clown’s penis.

Chester Brown is a talented draughtsman, but the depiction of Ronald Reagan doesn’t really look anything like the Western movie actor and 40th president of the United States. Reagan here looks more like an enraged potato with male-pattern-baldness. I’m convinced this is intentional. Ronald Reagan Penis’s face is not just a distortion; he’s real. The blurry space exists within Chester Brown’s imagination. Here we see Chester Brown’s Thomas Jefferson asplash in the bubble bath. A new Ronald Reagan appears: a double wearing the mask of the Ronald Reagan we know. Shake his hand. He has the same name and title as the well-known president to the now-dead man. And he has something to say.

Using real names in fiction has to do with how other people — those idealized, those hated, family, friends, everybody — live in our heads when they’re not with us. When we’re alone, names live in our imagination. Names are unavoidable. They’re everywhere. Go to a museum, names are listed on the wall. Names of authors are on the front of books and in the news. Names are in the cemetery. Names are a way to stay alive in the minds of others after the living body that carried the name no longer exists.

Johan Huizinga, writing about death in The Waning of the Middle Ages, quotes an anonymous 12th-century poem:

Where is now your glory, Babylon, where is now the terrible Nebuchadnezzar, and strong Darius, and the famous Cyrus? Where is now Regulus, or where Romulus, or where Remus? The rose of yore is but a name, mere names are left to us.

Names are what’re left. Thomas Jefferson was a man, but he’s dead now, and what exists of him aside from the bones buried at Monticello is what we imagine when we see him in our heads and write down his name in our novels. These Jeffersons are only the beginning. He goes on, ad infinitum. And these countless Jeffersons are themselves conflations of a source text, a living person’s experience.

If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, would he sue Steve and Stephen for slander? One hopes not. The publisher’s legal team might balk, but one hopes the president might read, and learn something.

Inside a novel, a real name can blur the imagined and the real. This is, arguably, what fiction does — puts imagination in conversation with reality. A real name can mask the chaos of the virtual with a face. The real name can make consciousness communicable. The bathwater has turned gray; we see a volcano looming over a city; Jefferson trolls his line for trout; Sally Hemings leaves Monticello with a pair of the dead Thomas Jefferson’s eyeglasses in her possession. Maybe we want all of this to make sense, or know it never will. And so we go to be alone with our thoughts, and start to write.


Hayden Bennett is the deputy editor of The Believer.