Stieber on Daut, Pierrot, and Rohrleitner, eds (2022)
Daut, Marlene L., Grégory Pierrot, Marion C. Rohrleitner, editors. Haitian Revolutionary Fictions. U of Virginia P, 2022, pp. 1008, ISBN 9780813945705
In Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot traces the misapprehension of the Haitian Revolution in contemporaneous French publications from the period. As he argues, “Official debates and publications of the times, including the long list of pamphlets on Saint-Domingue published in France from 1790 to 1804, reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories” (73). Those ready-made categories—shaped by Enlightenment philosophy, European notions of rights and freedom, and racism—lacked the terms and types capable of apprehending a revolution helmed by formerly enslaved people and free people of color and the diversity of their motivations.
Yet Trouillot’s meditation on silencing and on power in the production of history is often misapprehended itself—as somehow an argument that no one wrote about the Haitian Revolution after it happened. Writers were far from silent about the Haitian Revolution in the nineteenth century. Indeed, as a new anthology edited and translated by Marlene Daut, Grégory Pierrot, and Marion Rohrleitner shows, writers from Europe, the United States, Haiti, and Brazil were all but infatuated with the Haitian Revolution. They produced scores of novels, poems, and plays about the Haitian Revolution over the course of the long nineteenth century (1787–1900).
The scope and detail of this exceptional anthology reveals the nature of nineteenth-century writing about the Haitian Revolution: the titular fictions tied, some closely and most only tenuously, to the historical events that took place in revolutionary Saint Domingue between 1791 and 1804. It is a body of writing that largely puts the Haitian Revolution to use, mobilizing the event and the fear and horror it engendered to elicit a response in readers and contribute to pro-slavery discourse: “nearly all fictions of the Haitian Revolution published during the first half of the nineteenth century, which make of the majority of the writings in this volume, not only appear to be against the Haitian Revolution in this way but were written in either overt or implicit support of slavery” (xxii).
The anthology is organized with an eye to facilitating comparative work, as doing so “reveals that what is ultimately at stake in fictions of the Haitian Revolution are the political and cultural legacies of Atlantic humanisms: ideas of freedom, democracy, and equality in the deeply unequal and violent world of chattel slavery” (xxxiii). It begins with an excellent introduction written by Daut followed by over two hundred excerpts, translated into English when necessary, and accompanied by concise, scholarly biographical and historical notices including research references. The editors chose to present the texts alphabetically but provide a useful chronology of authors and titles at the end of the volume where they also note the author’s country of origin in order to facilitate national, linguistic, and cultural analyses. There is also a separate index of titles as well as a timeline of key events of the Haitian Revolution to orient readers unfamiliar with this history.
The vast corpus of excerpted texts covers the French-, English-, Haitian Creole-, Portuguese-, German-, and Spanish-speaking worlds. It also includes an impressive number of sketches and engravings that accompanied the original texts. The volume situates better known texts (those by Claire de Duras and Leonora Sansay, for example) alongside under-studied and virtually unknown texts from different authors and languages. The anthology also includes key texts from nineteenth-century Haitian writers such Juste Chanlatte, Hérard Dumesle, and Coriolan Ardouin, among others, as well as short stories penned by writers of African descent. For scholars who are already familiar with nineteenth-century writing in French and English about the Haitian Revolution, the Lusophone fictions and the omnipresence of the Haitian Revolution in nineteenth-century Brazilian print culture is a particularly interesting inclusion in the anthology. Similarly, the number of texts from German and Austrian writers (from as early as 1792 and continuing through the 1870s) is equally noteworthy. As interesting are the absences that the editors point out: there are no original fictions of the Haitian Revolution in Spanish (by Spanish Caribbean or Spanish American authors), though the introduction does note the existence of several Spanish translations of other texts and sustained attention to Haiti in the Spanish American literary imagination and print culture. This absence is likely only temporary: “Given how widespread engagement with the Haitian Revolution was across the Americas,” the editors explain, “we believe that it is only a matter of time before some original, sustained nineteenth-century story, play, novel, or poem about the Haitian Revolution written by a Spanish Caribbean or Spanish American author will be located” (xxxi). Indeed, the anthology is but a snapshot of the ever-growing bibliography of Haitian revolutionary fictions that Daut started as website (https://www.haitianrevolutionaryfictions.com/) and that will continue in expanded future editions of the anthology.
Of particular value are the scholarly notices that include biographical information on the text’s author, important historical context for the period surrounding the text’s production, other notable texts by the author, and a useful summary of the work from which the text was excerpted. The editors insist on the importance of this context for students, scholars, and researchers alike: “to understand the role that such fictions played in circulating ideas about both slavery and the events that led to Haitian abolition of it […] an interpretive framework that can situate each passage in relation to Haitian revolutionary history” (xxxii–xxxiii). Crucially, each entry identifies the original source text and the location of the excerpt, greatly facilitating scholars who wish to go further in their research. The attention to utility and detail is especially appreciated; everything is contained within the entry itself—there is no flipping back and forth to endnotes or backmatter. It is a pleasure to use.
The introduction offers a comprehensive and insightful entry point into the anthology and makes the case for the world-historical significance of the Haitian Revolution and its central place in histories of slavery and freedom, racism, and human rights. It includes an extended introduction to the field of nineteenth-century Atlantic literature and its treatment of the Haitian Revolution, an overview of Haitian Revolutionary History, and a section on pedagogy. The introduction to Atlantic literature emphasizes the importance of studying nineteenth-century fictions of the Haitian Revolution precisely because they mark such a departure from the better-known mid-twentieth century depictions of the revolution by Black diasporic writers who drew inspiration from the radical figures of the revolution. As the introduction notes, studying the fictions of the Haitian Revolution that circulated in the nineteenth century allows readers “to probe what this immense body of writing might tell us about the relationship between slavery and revolution, on the one hand, and to what ends the Haitian Revolution was put to use in its own era and in the century or so after its conclusion, on the other” (xxiii).
The pedagogy section focuses on the teaching of history and perspective, showing how the anthology can be used to teach the relationship between the Haitian and French Revolutions beyond the dominant notion of “French enlightenment transmission to Haiti,” in which the French Revolution is framed as having seeded or even inspired the Haitian Revolution (xlv). Indeed, scholarship from early in the boom of Haitian Revolutionary studies espoused this idea of a cause-and-effect relationship in which France bestowed upon its colony and its enslaved inhabitants the very notions of liberty and humanism. The anthology’s Haitian-produced sources rebut this overly simplistic idea of influence by emphasizing the tradition of anti-slavery resistance that long predated the emergence of abolitionist movements in France. As the introduction notes, “The historical record clearly demonstrates that enslaved violence, marronage, and other forms of fugitivity and resistance were already a part of the general climate in Saint-Domingue long before the French Revolution or the emergence of abolitionist societies” (xlviii). The transnational and multilingual corpus of Haitian revolutionary fictions challenges educators to present the relationship between the French and Haitian revolutions beyond chronology or cause-effect, and instead as “parallel events that had ricocheting, but uneven, consequences not only for the specific geographic locales in which the events occurred but across the world” (xlix).
Taken together, the anthology’s introduction, comprehensive scholarly notices, and translations make for a thorough, rigorous treatment of the vast corpus that is eminently useable. It will be essential reading for students, teachers and researchers alike.