Volume 1, Issue 3, February 2011

Issue 3   February 2011

The Haitian Revolution as Theme
The revolutionary events in Saint Domingue that gave birth to an independent Haiti in 1804 have finally begun to take their proper place in French history.  Rather than being ignored as irrelevant to the main event – the French Revolution and Napoleon’s ascent – the Haitian Revolution has become the focal point of an outpouring of new scholarship. In the decades of relative neglect, despite a few pathbreaking works mentioned by our reviewers, fiction took up the slack.  In this issue historians return to this literary heritage to examine what it added and can continue to add to our understanding of the Haitian Revolution. The publication of Isabel Allende’s novel inspired us to break from our usual format and to publish a thematic issue. So many of us are now including Haiti in our lectures or devoting whole courses to it, that a broad review of the fictionalized treatment of the event seemed in order.  Although there are as yet no films that deal with the Haitian Revolution, our “classics” section offers a full array of alternatives. The fiction speaks for itself, but in doing so it both inspires and requires historical inquiry.

The Buzz

Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea
For a second time this year, a world-renowned novelist has tackled a French event within an Atlantic framework. Last issue we reviewed Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America; this time we turn to Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s retelling of the Haitian Revolution.  The story, part history, part chick-lit, is told from the perspective of a female slave who, after the defeat of the first Haitian uprising, which she helped to organize, is taken to Cuba and then to New Orleans by the master she foolishly rescues. Wherever she goes she continues to fight for her freedom and that of her children, and to keeps her forebears’ religious traditions alive.  This broad canvas allows Allende to examine cultural transfers of African music, religion, and practices to the New World, both in a plantation setting and in the peculiar French, Spanish, American, and African milieu of New Orleans in the early 1800s. Does her tale stand up to recent scholarship? An historian responds.
To read the review . . .

Maybe Missed

Madison Smartt Bell’s Haitian Revolution Trilogy
Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy set during the Haitian Revolution has been praised more for its vivid array of fictional characters than its treatment of historical events. Historians have reason to doubt whether the slave revolt of 1791was started by white men, or yellow fever deliberately used to preserve black independence in 1803. But the special truth of fiction really depends on creating a sense of authenticity, of capturing time, place, and personality.  In Bell’s novels the people are all real, even the historical ones. For once the complexity of character matches the complexity of events. The profound enigma that was Toussaint Louverture makes him the perfect axle around which everyone else’s often brutal stories turn.
To read the review . . .

Classroom Classics

Les caprices d’un fleuve and Burn!
Somewhat surprisingly, no films deal directly with the Haitian Revolution – although a biopic on Toussaint Louverture is in the works.  All the same Burn! transparently alludes to it, and Les caprices d’un fleuve, set in a slave-trading port in Africa, potently displays French racial prejudices in the age of the French Revolution.  Neither film is new, and they would surely be markedly different if made today.  But that is why showing an historical film – in both senses of the adjective – can be so helpful to students.  In an old cliché, the context becomes the text.  The time and place in which the story takes place is doubled by the time and place in which the film was made.  And as our reviewer points out, showing such movies alongside ones of a similar genre creates a third layer of contextualization. Pretty soon nothing is just black and white – not the characters, not the prejudices, not even the older films themselves.
To read the review . . .

Liana Vardi, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Howard G. Brown, Binghamton University, SUNY

Previous Issues

Table of Contents

The Buzz

Unwritten Stories, by Laurent Dubois

Maybe Missed

Madison Smartt Bell’s Haitian Revolution Trilogy, by Jeremy D. Popkin

Classics in the Classroom

Les caprices d’un fleuve and Burn!, by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

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