This essay investigates how various representations of the public memory of Thomas Jefferson function rhetorically. Curiously, such representations depict a past for which no certain record exists. The portrayal of Jefferson's alleged affair with Sally Hemings in novels, films, and other discourses demonstrates that the rhetoric of public memory, which preserves the relevance and utility of the past for audiences in the present, is often sustained, not by a transparent or even plausible understanding of former persons and events, but by profound and potentially irresolvable confusions over the relationship between what is commemorated and those doing the commemorating. The essay scrutinizes how three different forms of rhetoric respond to such confusion by fashioning memories of Jefferson that reflect contemporary desires to explain the mysteries of his enigmatic past. Consequently, the essay argues that the contemporary public memory of Jefferson is defined by a discursive haunting of his official reputation in which various ghostly counterparts are said to represent what the official record can only suggest.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Language and Linguistics