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  • The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies eds. by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler
  • Gordon Fraser (bio)
The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies. Edited by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler. U of Pennsylvania P, 2016. 432 pages. $55.00 cloth; $55.00 ebook.

In August 1801, printers in the United States published and circulated the new constitution of the revolutionized French colony of Saint-Domingue, a political entity that in three years would become the first independent black nation-state in the Western Hemisphere. By 1802, more than twenty newspapers from Virginia to Maine had reprinted the Saint-Domingue constitution. The document was, according to Michael Drexler and Ed White, "the most widely read piece of literature authored by an African American … until the publication of Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass" in 1845 (213). Theirs is a bold claim. Drexler and White acknowledge, for instance, that white creole enslavers actually composed the 1801 constitution. Black revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture approved and promulgated the text but did not draft it himself. Moreover, as the text circulated, it was mediated by the intervening decisions of white editors and printers. And yet the circulation of the Louverture constitution staged a drama of political authority, one that revealed to white US Americans the radical limits of their ostensibly universal revolutionary dogmas. Printed in black and white on the pages of US newspapers, the constitution could be immediately understood by readers as an emancipatory political project of world-historical proportions.

The United States and Haiti have each too frequently been read in exceptional terms: as the world's richest nation and as its poorest, as a herrenvolk republic and as a nation founded by formerly enslaved Africans. Yet both nations share an interlocking history, as the story of the Louverture constitution makes clear. In The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies, editors Drexler and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon bring together eighteen historians and literary scholars to examine how the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and the early republican project in the United States constituted interanimating cultural, military, economic, and biopolitical systems. The essay collection explores how "Haiti," as a political idea, remade the politics of republicanism, freedom, emancipation, and race in the early United States, and how, in turn, US cultural production and sociopolitical violence reshaped the emerging black nation-state. [End Page 221]

The collection's subtitle—"Histories, Textualities, Geographies"—articulates an organizational schema attentive to the interrelation between literature and history, and to the "spatial turn" in hemispheric American literary and cultural studies. Dillon and Drexler write that, "[b]y drawing Haiti and the early United States into sustained relation," they mean to "open a series of debates that allow us to speculatively redraw the map" of relations between nation-states that have too often been understood separately (15). Dillon and Drexler suggest, in essence, that Haitian exceptionalism (like the US exceptionalism that is its antithesis) masks longstanding and ongoing relations, exchanges, and conflicts. From the Jefferson administration's embargo of Haiti in 1806 through the US military occupation of the island nation from 1915-1934, and through Operation Uphold Democracy in 1994, the first revolutionary nation in the Western Hemisphere has continually intervened in the politics of the second. Yet ideologies of exceptionalism have often masked such interventions. The mythology of westward expansion has obscured the United States' origin as a collection of colonies sustained by Atlantic trade. Haiti, meanwhile, has too frequently been read as a nation rendered marginal by its impoverishment, an object of the world's (often harmful) charity. The present collection offers a corrective to such exceptionalist myths.

For literary scholars, in particular, the collection promises to reconfigure longstanding assumptions about the distribution of textual artifacts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Marlene Daut explores how newspaper editors and readers in the early United States were "intimately acquainted with Haitian authors," particularly the Baron de Vastey (1781-1820) (288). Peter Reed explores how a comedic theatrical production, John Murdock's The Triumph of Love, presented Philadelphia audiences in May 1795 with the story of "hapless refugees and rebellious black...


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