- Beyond MentionsNew Approaches to Comparative Studies of Haiti
The inclusion of the revolutionary Caribbean in the historiography of the Age of Revolution has been key to reasserting the centrality of the Haitian Revolution in the dramatic transformations of the late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Atlantic world.1 This spatial turn, which privileges the interconnections within the early American hemisphere, has proved particularly fruitful for historians of the early Republic in the United States who insist on the centrality of Haiti in the creation of national identity and state building in what Ashli White termed "the making of the early American republic" (9). Given the proliferation of scholarly work in Haitian-US studies over the last decade, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler rightly announce in their recent collection on the impact of the Haition [End Page 961] Revolution on the development of the early United States: "It should no longer be possible to write a history of the early republic in the United States without mentioning Haiti, or St. Domingue" (1).
Surely Dillon and Drexler's use of the word mention here is a wink to Michel-Rolph Trouillot's Silencing the Past, a touchstone work for each of the texts under consideration here. Mentions and silences are central to Trouillot's argument about power in the production of history:
[They] are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such, they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one "silences" a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis.(48)
Unsilencing Saint-Domingue−Haiti is the clarion call to Anglophone North Atlantic scholars that Trouillot sounded in Silencing the Past.2 Each of the works under consideration here heeds Trouillot's call, but also challenge and further clarify his thesis, following earlier responses to Trouillot that point out just how much "noise" the events in Saint-Domingue actually made. Marlene Daut's Tropics of Haiti assembles an impressive corpus of printed material about the Haitian Revolution that circulated in the Atlantic world to reveal how the Haitian Revolution was "incessantly narrated," in a specifically racialized way (3). James Alexander Dun's Dangerous Neighbors reveals that the Haitian Revolution was present and "thinkable" in newspapers in Philadelphia, complicating Trouillot's claims of "unthinkability" that he derived from a rather limited corpus of "official debates and publications of the times," almost entirely published in France (73). Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler curate a vast collection of essays that demonstrate the "early and far-reaching history of mutually entwined relations between Haiti and the United States" (1).
The works under consideration here are interested in how the Haitian Revolution was narrated—how people wrote about and represented the events that took place in Saint-Domingue−Haiti. In pursuing this interest, they each confront the challenges inherent in the "use" of Haiti as a comparative in different ways, illustrating the possibilities and limitations of analyzing Haiti in a comparative Atlantic context. Both Dun's Dangerous Neighbors and Dillon and Drexler's The Haitian Revolution and the Early [End Page 962] United States challenge the notion of exceptionalism in US culture to reveal crucial examples of how Saint-Domingue−Haiti shaped early US national culture. Daut's Tropics of Haiti reveals a complex network of intertextuality and literary dialogue in the early nineteenth-century literary history of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic world. Crucially, Daut's approach considers Haitians as the objects and subjects of narratives about the Haitian Revolution—thus illuminating both...