- Bearing the Burden of Loss:Melancholic Agency in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, FMC
Although a number of scholars have focused on the titular protagonist in analyzing the arbitrary constructions of race and the performances of racial identities1 in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, FMC, few have fully explored the ways in which the author deploys the novel to “personify history and create entities that represent those people who seem lost to the official record but demand attention nevertheless” (Tettenborn 114). Indeed, Chesnutt embeds in the main plotline of Paul Marchand, FMC an account of the subject formation of Zabet Philosophe,2 an enslaved black Saint-Dominguan woman who, at the behest of her owner, flees Haiti with her master’s children during the 1793 revolution and later influences the destiny of the wealthy Beaurepas family of New Orleans. As I argue, Zabet Philosophe’s biographical narrative is developed as a response to white Saint-Dominguan refugees’ historical erasure of black Haitians’ subjectivity in their descriptions of the war and their transnational emigration to the United States. Through Zabet’s story, Chesnutt, consequently, endows the cake woman with the authority to reveal the black refugee’s experiences of the complex realities of enslavement, dispersion, and [End Page 1] diasporic survival. In so doing, he further unmasks Zabet as an embodiment of what I term a black melancholic subject, a raced individual who not only willfully manifests the infinite sorrow that stems from enduring a long history of personal losses but also transforms this grief into an enabling force of resistance against racial and post-imperial objectification.3 Ultimately, my concentration on Zabet’s narrative is to make evident her identity as more than an “old trusty family slave” (Wilson xix) but as a Haitian revolutionary whose subjectivity “emerges both as the effect of a prior power”—French imperialism—as well as “the condition of possibility for a radically conditioned form of agency” (Butler 15)—melancholic agency.
One may speculate that Chesnutt’s decision to reference the Haitian Revolution and compose a narrative of the melancholic subjectivity of a black Saint-Dominguan refugee was informed by his intense interest in the political state of Haiti during the time he was writing the novel.4 At the time of the novel’s authorship, Chesnutt was following newspaper accounts, especially those that appeared in Nation, of the American occupation of Saint-Domingue.5 In 1915, the United States “intervened in debt-ridden and politically unstable Haiti’s affairs … for the proclaimed end of stabilizing the country … and preventing rival nations from bringing it under their control” (Crisler, Leitz, and McElrath 244). On March 18, 1922, Chesnutt relates to Ernest Angell that he had signed a brief in support of withdrawing U.S. marines from occupying Haiti in 1915 (Crisler, Leitz, and McElrath 150). He would later encourage others, such as Harry C. Smith, editor of the Cleveland Gazette, to support a resolution to remove the American troops. Chesnutt writes, “The United States ought to be able to help the Haitians out of the rut without entirely depriving them of their hard-earned and long-maintained independence” (Crisler, Leitz, and McElrath 159). Through this statement, Chesnutt connects the modern with the colonial domination of Haiti. In particular, the twentieth-century occupation harkens back to the history of Haitian subjugation by the French. And like the French, Americans would also experience Haitian rebel resistance against its presence on the island nation in 1918. America’s agenda to control Saint-Domingue thus provides rich fodder for Chesnutt in constructing the novel through which he tacitly articulates his contemporaneous grievance concerning the continued oppression involved in Western rivalries that are endemic to nation-building. Moreover, Paul Marchand, FMC provides readers with occasions for the historical remembrance of the black [End Page 2] insurgents and especially the refugee subjects who were engendered by the Haitian Revolution.
From 1791 to 1809, thousands of Saint-Dominguan refugees disembarked on the shores of America’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, seeking asylum from the tumult and aftermath of the Haitian war for independence. In Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic, Ashli...