Theses Doctoral

Translated Subjects: Visions of Haiti in 19th-Century Literary Exchange

Albanese, Mary Grace

Haiti’s public image has long vacillated between extremes: from democratic beacon to shadow of insurrection; from space of racial uplift to pit of economic exploitation; from bearer of Enlightenment ideals to dark land of “voodoo.” Indeed the two taglines most commonly associated with Haiti are: “first black republic” and “poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” These opposing taglines fit within a critical paradigm that has long viewed Haiti in terms of example (as a site of universal emancipation and racial equality) and exception (or, in Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s memorable words, the notion that Haiti is “unnatural, erratic, and therefore unexplainable.”) This dissertation engages these two competing figures of Haitian exemplarity and Haitian exceptionalism in early 19th-century literatures of the black Americas. In doing so, I examine Haiti both as an imagined space and as a site of literary production whose products circulated in various and sometimes misleading translations. This network of what I call “translations of Haiti’ re-navigate, and mark with difference, traditional narratives of race and nation.
My project reveals how the idea of Haiti flickered through many complex forms in the early 19th-century. Some of these forms fall into the rubric of exception/example but others do not: from sister in democracy, to vanguard of black internationalism, to potential site of exploitation, to occasion for domestic reflection. By nuancing the binary between example and exception, I question critical accounts that depict early representations of the first black republic as either symptomatic of white anxieties or an ideal site for the realization of black nationalist projects. These accounts, I argue, often overlook how national and racial categories failed to overlap; they occlude Haitian (and especially Kreyòl) literary production; and, most importantly, they ignore the complex transnational movements occasioned by this production. I argue that when we consider translation as a metaphor (for example, the notion of translation as an analogical model or heuristic) we must also consider translation as a practice with material consequences. I negotiate between Haiti’s powerful abstraction(s) and a material network of constantly circulating, translated and re-translated texts. These texts, I argue, provoked fears and anxieties, but also speculations, hopes, and visions amongst constantly changing constituents of groups that may or may not be usefully labeled (for example, free U.S. blacks; mulâtres; noirs; U.S. northerners; etc.) Using this shifting international stage as a point of departure, “Translated Subjects” takes Haitian cultural production seriously – that is to say, as more than a convenient metaphor – to reveal new channels of literary exchange.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Arsic, Branka
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 26, 2017