SEA Scholar of the Month, April 2023: Marlene Daut
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I went to graduate school actually thinking that I would work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century francophone poets from New Orleans, particularly those involved with a review called Les Cenelles. But in the process of learning about the history of francophone North American print culture, I came across a short story about a slave rebellion in French-claimed Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) by an author from New Orleans named Victor Séjour. He had emigrated to France and subsequently published his first known work of fiction, which was thought for a long time to be the first African American short story, in a famous Parisian journal called La Revue des colonies. This review, which was edited by the Martinican activist Cyrille Bissette, actually led me directly to nineteenth-century Haitian authors like Ignace Nau and Bauvais Lespinasse, whose fictional works appeared in the review as well. Encountering these francophone American and Haitian literary works in a Parisian review just made me want to delve even more deeply into what were at the time some very understudied authors, at least in the United States. Because I was also reading more modern French Caribbean authors like Edouard Glissant, whose Faulkner, Mississippi was very formative for me, I was very aware of the importance of Haiti for US American literary genealogies, and the more I looked into it, the more I thought, this is what I really need to be studying. Then, when the coup d’état of 2004 happened, which unseated Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, my interest in Haiti only took on more urgency. Watching as contemporary disaster-type narratives of Haiti continued to proliferate, it became even more important in my mind to continue to excavate the past precisely in order to be able to better understand the present. In so doing, I learned that Haitian historians, scholars, and writers of the nineteenth century were great excavators themselves, and their interpretations of Haitian history and Haitian politics are ultimately what I wanted to know and to read.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Baron de Vastey (21 January 1781-1820) was the most prominent and prolific secretary of the Kingdom of Haiti. Vastey was the son of a free woman of color from Saint-Domingue and a white French planter from Normandy. Vastey authored eleven-book length works in a span of only five years, but his most famous publication is undoubtedly his scathing indictment of colonial slavery titled Le Système colonial dévoilé (1814), or The Colonial System Unveiled. Though he is largely unknown outside of academic circles today, in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World Baron de Vastey was an international public figure who was celebrated for his anticolonial and antislavery writing. Vastey’s damning exposé of the inhumanity of the colonial system, for example, was so well known across the nineteenth-century Atlantic World that upon its publication it was immediately reviewed in French, US, German, and British journals and newspapers. By 1823 at least four of Vastey’s works had even been translated into both Dutch and English, suggesting that Vastey’s keen dismantling of pro-slavery writing had a global appeal to nineteenth-century readers and publishers. In fact, in the transatlantic abolitionist public sphere, Vastey was often favorably compared to two other well-known writers from the Anglophone African diaspora, Phillis Wheatley and Ignatius Sancho. In the book, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism (2017), I develop these themes more fully in order to explore Vastey’s foundational position in a tradition of Afro-diasporic humanistic discourse that circulates around speaking against forms of colonial racism and colonial slavery in a way that is much more closely associated with twentieth-century Black authors like W.E.B. Du Bois.
What are you currently working on?
My next book is an intellectual history of the Haitian Revolution titled Awakening the Ashes, which is forthcoming with the University of North Carolina Press. Beginning with the pre-Columbus history of Haiti and ending around the turn of the twentieth century, Awakening the Ashes provides an in-depth study of key figures of eigteenth- and nineteenth-century Haitian intellectual history and a broad analysis of the central political, literary, and historical ideas they developed in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. My research into the interconnectedness of Haitian intellectuals with their counterparts from around the world highlights the largely unacknowledged role of Haitian thinkers in transforming our understanding of several concepts essential to the creation of the modern world-system, such as colonialism and race, slavery and abolition, freedom and sovereignty. I am also writing a trade book about the kingdom of Haiti titled The First and Last King of Haiti, which is under contract with Knopf/Pantheon. Born to an enslaved mother on the island of Grenada in 1767, Henry Christophe first fought to overthrow the British in North America at the Battle of Savannah (1779), before helping his fellow enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue to gain their freedom from France. After a series of tragic events, including the arrest and torturous death of Governor-General Toussaint Louverture in a dreary prison in France, and the assassination of Haiti’s founder, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Christophe became Haiti’s first and only king. It all came to a sudden and tragic end though when after only thirteen years of ruling, King Henry I shot himself in the heart, legend says with a silver bullet.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Because I am teaching it, I have recently been re-reading the late Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, which is the long-awaited book based on Scott’s landmark 1986 dissertation. The moment I heard the title of Julius Scott’s famous dissertation, back when I was in graduate school, I was intrigued. “A Breathing of the Common Wind: The Sea, Politics, and Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution,” of course, references an 1802 poem by William Wordsworth, “To Toussaint Louverture:”
Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exaltations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
As a literary critic, I was familiar with the poem as a tribute to black martyrdom, partly because Harriet Beecher Stowe had used these lines for an elegy to the eponymous hero of her 1856 abolitionist novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. In Julius Scott’s work, however, the “common wind” is a metaphor for the dizzying world of sailors and ships and the rumors, innuendos, and anecdotes of slave revolts and rebellions they carried to port during the Age of Revolutions. Scott’s use of the storied phrase to describe how such conversations made their way into the newspapers of the day not only changed my reading of Wordsworth’s poem, but gave me the confidence to assert that the myriad US newspaper stories I was reading that praised Haitian sovereignty were important exactly because they diverged from fear-based readings of nineteenth-century reactions to the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. The affirmation of Haitian independence to be found in many newspapers in the early national United States, for example, contradicted the US government’s official policy of non-recognition. And reading early nineteenth-century northern US newspapers through the lens of a “common wind” that promoted the recognition of Haitian independence across the Atlantic World made it impossible to believe that Haiti suffered a unilateral bad press after the Revolution that has persisted into the twenty-first century.
Marlene Daut is Professor of French and African American Studies at Yale University.