- French Connection II
Two books, each representing a distinct geographical location and intellectual tradition, provide dramatically different points of departure for evaluating French literary and cultural influence in the American hemisphere. The first, Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence (1973), is a signal example of the post-Vietnam War critique of American literary and cultural history that used the tragic confluence of French and US military actions in Southeast Asia as an occasion to rewrite hoary Americanist conceits of the noble savage, the vanishing frontier, and the irresistible march of progress as mandates for imperial, genocidal conquest. Though it turned Americanist inquiries inexorably westward, Slotkins’s work, like Richard Drinnon’s similarly themed Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (1980), introduced a recursive, transatlantic coordinate into its critical narrative that made France’s ideal of civilization at once the ideological origin and the logical end of a nationalist tradition whose manifest destiny lay in Southeast Asia.
If Slotkin’s work placed France’s literary and intellectual influence within the imperial heart of the American field imaginary, then J. Michael Dash’s The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context (1998) placed it at the hemisphere’s periphery. Specifically, Dash engaged the features of Caribbean postmodernism and postcolonialism that has made Martinique, on account of its “largely unbroken relationship with France,” a distinct intellectual locus within the hemisphere, the site of a “creolizing incompleteness” amongst totalizing narratives of American subject formation (11, 14). Chris Bongie, Anna Brickhouse (Transamerican Literary Relations and Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere ), and Sean Goudie (Creole America: The West Indies and the Formation of Literature and Culture in the New Republic ), among others, [End Page 775] in turn would take up the challenge of turning Francophone vocabularies of Créolité into structures for extending the time and space of the French Caribbean into American literary history.
Where, then, does France’s literary and intellectual influence reside? It is within the center, underwriting the imperial mandate of American nationalism? Or is it located in the specially designated quarters of the hemisphere—the French Caribbean, Louisiana, French Canada—that remain to some extent quarantined from the broader concept of an intercultural, multilingual American literary formation by the heavy hand of French imperialism? The emergence of a Haitian–US axis of American intellectual and cultural history for the long nineteenth century, inspired by the towering argument of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past (1995), has created both a new occasion for asking this question and a new calculation for deciding it.1 Trouillot’s central argument—that French intellectuals successfully excluded the history of the Haitian Revolution from the geography and historiography of the Americas—charges the hemispheric model of power and agency with a Euro-Atlantic counterpart. In his reading of the French Enlightenment, the same philosophes who disown the subjectivity of enslaved Africans labor just as mightily to universalize French colonial structures of race and capitalist output as American standards of freedom for the benefit of US creole patriots. It is a chilling portrait but also a potentially democratizing one, for it renders the millennial American nationalism of the postrevolutionary era the successful outcome of a French strategic intervention in Euro-creole self-determination the predecessor a more sinister intervention in the post-colonial fate of Haiti. Can we now use this imperial legacy to level the hemispheric playing field and render the dominant site of its influence an uncanny reflection of the most marginalized?
In French literary and cultural histories, US scholars must grapple with a presence that is both foreign and formative, visible in historically fragile or failed nation-states—Haiti; the departments of...