Haiti’s Literary Legacies

By | March 22, 2022

Interview with Kir Kuiken and Deborah Elise White

How would you describe your book in one sentence?

KK & DEW: Our book gathers together essays that examine the impact of the Haitian Revolution on romantic-era writing—European, North American, and Haitian – and how those writings, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, registered and responded to events experienced at the time as unprecedented.

What drew the two of you to this subject – Romanticism and the Haitian Revolution? And what made you decide to edit an essay collection on it?

KK & DEW: Romanticism has long been studied in relation to the French Revolution and as part of a larger era sometimes called (as in the title of one influential book) “the age of revolution,” and yet only recently has the importance of the Haitian Revolution come to be understood as crucial to Romantic writing. Romantic and Romantic-inflected writing is widely understood to be concerned with questions of freedom, and yet surprisingly little attention has been given to the impact that this Revolution, which was led by slaves and former slaves, had on the period’s understanding of freedom –or on its self-understanding. The Haitian Revolution gave a tremendous shock to the Transatlantic world, and the debates and denials that it generated still frame our contemporary moment.  This relative lack of attention to Haiti in Romantic Studies and the fact that scholarship has yet to fully consider the way that it shaped, and continues to shape, our most basic political and aesthetic categories are what drew us to the subject. At the same time, the last few years have seen some movement in this area, some new attention brought to the Haitian Revolution by Romanticists (themselves often responding to a flush of new historical research on Haiti and work in Black Studies), and that made it feel like an especially important moment to draw attention to some of the new work being done on this subject. Our book is only one starting point, but these essays go a long way toward suggesting the extent to which we need to revise our understanding of Romanticism, the scope and nature of its political engagements, and the degree to which it has helped shape our current moment.

How long have you yourselves been researching this topic? How did you come to study it?

KK: My interest in the Haitian Revolution extends back to my first monograph published in 2014 (Imagined Sovereignties: Toward a New Political Romanticism), which challenged the idea that Romantic-era authors, disillusioned with the failure of the French Revolution, turned “inward” to the imagination. Though that argument focused on a reading of British Romantic poetry, it became clear that to me that I needed to address the effect that the Haitian Revolution had on the ideas of sovereignty and freedom these authors embraced. I had originally intended to include some of the work presented in Haiti’s Literary Legacies in the book I’m currently working on. When that work shifted focus, I decided to join forces with Deborah on this collection.

DEW: My first book, Romantic Returns: Superstition, Imagination, History was also concerned with contesting the idea (still all too prevalent) that Romanticism involves an inward turn or retreat from politics and history, but my focus remained British Romanticism. More recently, I had been researching and writing on debates about Revolution that occurred later in the nineteenth century—debates concerning the 1848 European uprisings and the 1870 Paris Commune. I had published some of that research, which focused on Karl Marx and, especially, Victor Hugo. But working in the French context—1848 was when France finally abolished slavery for good—inevitably required looking closely at both the earlier French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution. Of course most of my students don’t read French, but I started teaching Chris Bongie’s translation and critical edition of Hugo’s novel, Bug-Jargal, set during the start of the Haitian Revolution, and reading it with students alongside writing by the Haitian poet Hérard Dumesle. (For the latter, I used the bilingual anthology Poetry of Haitian Independence, edited by Deborah Jenson and Doris Kadish and with English translations by Norman R. Shapiro.) I always found students to be deeply engaged by those classes: we had one especially memorable class discussing Hugo’s novel the day after Trump was elected in 2016—I allude to this in my essay in Haiti’s Literary Legacies. The students seemed to recognize almost immediately that to talk about the novel was also to address their present predicament, and I determined there and then that I needed to write about Hugo’s novel and the revolution in Haiti. Kir and I knew something of each other’s work and decided to collaborate initially on a conference panel on Haiti and Romanticism and then, eventually on this volume.

Why do you feel it is important to continue to study literature?

KK: It remains important to study literature for reasons to which this book testifies. Literature is uniquely positioned to reflect on events and ideas that can’t quite be incorporated into habitual ways of thinking or feeling—and, of course, the Haitian Revolution was just such an event. Because of its attention to the capacity of language to register what is at the limits of expressibility, literature becomes a way of registering the unprecedented, the impossible, and the inimitable.

DEW: Moreover, literature itself can be an agent of the unprecedented—or the unknown. We are used to thinking of language as inheriting and imposing certain kinds of norms and even great works of literature participate in that process. But literary writing and literary reading can also interrupt and disturb such norms. (The essays in our volume look at both of these dimensions of texts registering and responding to the Haitian Revolution.)

Have you read any Bloomsbury Literary Studies Books? Which are your favorites and why?

DEW: Kir and I both feel that one of the most exciting aspects of Bloomsbury’s list in Literary Studies is that Bloomsbury continues to support edited collections and is doing so at a time when other presses seems to be stepping back from them. Edited volumes makes space for multiple perspectives on a topic and therefore can move the critical conversation forward in a distinctive way. Among recent titles, I especially admire Frankenstein in Theory: A Critical Anatomy, edited by Orrin Wang –if anyone out there thinks that there is nothing new left to say about Mary Shelley’s novel, then they can think again—and I have also been learning a great deal from the essays gathered in Romanticism and Speculative Realism, edited by Chris Washington and Anna C. McCarthy.

KK: I’ve read many Bloomsbury Literary Studies Books, including two close to my heart by my friend Branka Arsić, American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron (2014) and more recently Dispersion: Thoreau and Vegetal Thought. (I should mention that my partner, Vesna Kuiken, was assistant editor on the latter). What makes these publications so great is their ability to focus a range of different approaches and scholars on a specific topic; this approach tends to highlight the richness of a particular area of study or author. These collections are also important venues for both established as well as up-and-coming young scholars to interact and to address each other’s work.

Cover image of Haiti’s Literary Legacies

Kir Kuiken is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Albany, USA, and the author of Imagined Sovereignties: Towards a New Political Romanticism (2014). He has published essays on romanticism and critical theory in a range of journals including Oxford Literary Review, Essays in Romanticism, Postmodern Culture, Keats-Shelley Journal, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature and Research in Phenomenology.

Deborah Elise White is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Emory University, USA, and the author of Romantic Returns: Superstition, Imagination, History (2000). She edited the Romantic Praxis series volume Irony and Clerisy (1998) and has published essays on romanticism and theory in a range of journals including Comparative Literature Yearbook, Studies in Romanticism, European Romantic Review, MLN, and Romance Studies.

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