- Colonialism, Race, and the French Romantic Imagination
Colonialism, Race, and the French Romantic Imagination focuses on the discursive construction of race in the French colonial period, a subject that has been relatively neglected in nineteenth-century French literary studies until recently. Prasad addresses the neglect head on by redefining Romanticism and its relation to the eighteenth century. In addition to literature, she also takes into account materials from a broad range of other disciplines including ethnography, travel literature, and natural history. Grounding her work firmly in intellectual history, Prasad meticulously explores the underpinnings of Romantic-era writings, with special attention to Prévost, Diderot, Griffigny, Raynal, Mercier, the physiocrats, Buffon, Moreau de Saint-Méry, and others who set the stage for the colonial and anticolonial thought that developed in the nineteenth century. Although she focuses on the notions of race, gender, and nation that are of particular concern to us today, she also takes the time to review thoroughly the historical background of notions relevant to her subject such as utopia and the development of natural science.
Prasad's book defines five subject positions: white native, métis, disciplined savage, black aristocrat, and rebellious slave. In each case, she gives equal time to her authors' competing drives to comply with colonial expansion and challenge the imperialist project. Chapter one, which considers the notion of "indigenism," presents Bernardin's white "native" as indigenous to a place that has been occupied through colonialism. Chapter two continues the discussion of Bernardin with a focus on La Chaumière indienne. In this chapter, Prasad is able to give this work as well as the role of colonial India in relation to French issues of race and colonization the attention they deserve. In Chapter three on Chateaubriand, Prasad similarly illuminates a well-known author by focusing on one of his less often studied works, Les Natchez. Her interpretation of the "disciplined savage" in Les Natchez, like that of Bernardin's indigenous native, reveals the dual-sided nature of enlightened late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century writers: they laid the groundwork for later anticolonial and postcolonial ideas, yet at the same time they reproduced in certain ways the political outlook that undergirded those ideas. Chapter four enriches the considerable scholarship devoted in recent years to Ourika by focusing on the concept of the "black aristocrat." As in other chapters, Prasad casts her net widely, reaching out to a broad range of other works—including the popular novels La Nouvelle Ourika (1824) and La Négresse (1826)—that enable us to appreciate the liberatory thrust of Duras's novel, its racial indeterminacies notwithstanding. Chapter five discusses the concept of the "black Spartacus" in Hugo's Bug-Jargal and Mérimée's Tamango. Through a close analysis of the black protagonist and slave leader Bug in Hugo's work, Prasad reveals him to be a "reluctant rebel" and in fact an impotent doppelgänger of the Romantic white hero of the novel, Léopold d'Auverney. In the case of Mérimée's novel, Prasad views Tamango is a composite of the positive and negative roles that black men played in French writings of the time. Her conclusion is that strict limitations are placed on black male agency in both novels. [End Page 157]