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“Shadows of Haiti” examines echoes of the Haitian Revolution in three texts from the extended Caribbean: Victor Séjour’s “Le Mulâtre,”, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab, and Charles Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand F.M.C. After an overview of world-systems theory and an introduction to the historical context in which each of these texts is situated, this chapter compares the ways in which the potentially violent revolt of a mixed-race heterosexual male protagonist is neutered or silenced by the conventions of sentiment. Haunting all three texts is the dark shadow of the violent revolt in Saint-Domingue, enmeshed with the consequences of deadly family secrets related to race and violence. In “Le Mulâtre” and Sab, the male protagonist dies. In Paul Marchand F.M.C, however, the hero survives but is silenced and forced into exile in France.
In “The Haunted House in Royal Street,” Cable describes the various incarnations of a mansion in New Orleans, which was even, for a time, a school. In the section below, Cable tells of the time when the house was presided over by the notorious Madame Lalurie, a woman of uncertain background who gained admission to New Orleans society through her great beauty, wealth and charm.
She also was a secret sadist, who committed acts of brutality on her slaves. When the secrets of the house were at last revealed, the slave-owning citizens of New Orleans rioted and drove her from the city.
This story, like that of Salome Müller, was known throughout the South.
Text: George Washington Cable, Strange True Stories of Louisiana (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889), 200–219.
THE “HAUNTED HOUSE” IN ROYAL STREET
On the 30th of August, 1831, before Octave de Armas, notary, one E. Soniat Dufossat sold this property to a Madame Lalaurie. She may have dwelt in the house earlier than this, but here is where its tragic history begins. Madame Lalaurie was still a beautiful and most attractive lady, though bearing the name of a third husband. Her surname had been first McCarty,—a genuine Spanish-Creole name, although of Irish origin, of course,—then Lopez, or maybe first Lopez and then McCarty, and then Blanque. She had two daughters, the elder, at least, the issue of her first marriage.
The house is known to this day as Madame Blanque's house,—which, you notice, it never was,—so distinctly was she the notable figure in the household. Her husband was younger than she. There is strong sign of his lesser importance in the fact that he was sometimes, and only sometimes, called doctor—Dr. Louis Lalaurie. The graces and graciousness of their accomplished and entertaining mother quite outshone his stepdaughters as well as him. To the frequent and numerous guests at her sumptuous board these young girls seemed comparatively unanimated, if not actually unhappy. Not so with their mother.
In the African diaspora, enslaved peoples brought elements of their religion, which over time blended with Christianity. The resulting beliefs and practices differed according to African origins and the version of Christianity that was assimilated. In the Spanish Caribbean, the result was called santería, which has evolved into a recognized religion. In French islands and Louisiana, voudou (or voudoun) was the result; in the English-speaking South, conjure.
In this essay, Charles Chesnutt discusses his knowledge of conjure, which he both absorbed uncritically as a child in North Carolina and studied as an adult. The practices of conjure shown here are helpful in understanding not only Chesnutt's conjure tales but also E. Levi Brown's “At the Hermitage.”
Text: Charles W. Chesnutt, Stories, Novels, & Essays (New York: Library of America, 2002), 864–71.
SUPERSTITIONS AND FOLK-LORE OF THE SOUTH
During a recent visit to North Carolina, after a long absence, I took occasion to inquire into the latter-day prevalence of the old-time belief in what was known as “conjuration” or “goopher,” my childish recollection of which I have elsewhere embodied into a number of stories. The derivation of the word “goopher” I do not know, nor whether any other writer than myself has recognized its existence, though it is in frequent use in certain parts of the South. The origin of this curious superstition itself is perhaps more easily traceable. It probably grew, in the first place, out of African fetichism, which was brought over from the dark continent along with the dark people. Certain features, too, suggest a distant affinity with Voodooism, or snake worship, a cult which seems to have been indigenous to tropical America. These beliefs, which in the place of their origin had all the sanctions of religion and social custom, became, in the shadow of the white man's civilization, a pale reflection of their former selves. In time, too, they were mingled and confused with the witchcraft and ghost lore of the white man, and the tricks and delusions of the Indian conjurer. In the old plantation days they flourished vigorously, though discouraged by the “great house,” and their potency was well established among the blacks and the poorer whites. Education, however, has thrown the ban of disrepute upon witchcraft and conjuration.
Crèvecoeur (born Michel-Guillaume de Crèvecoeur) was a French soldier who became a naturalized citizen of New York. The early chapters of his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) describe an idealized life in rural New York in the years before the Revolution. He celebrates an early vision of the American Dream, in which European peoples are blended to create a new and perfect democracy.
But on a visit to South Carolina, Crèvecoeur takes a walk on a pleasant sunny day, enters a wood and encounters something that shatters his vision of simple republican virtue. What he finds in the woods forces him to acknowledge that “we certainly are not that class of beings which we vainly think ourselves to be.” This is a true moment of the Gothic uncanny.
Text: J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, reprinted from the original edition (New York: Duffield, 1904). A small number of obvious misprints have been silently corrected and present-day conventions for quotation marks applied.
Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; a Melancholy Scene
CHARLES-TOWN is, in the north, what Lima is in the south; both are Capitals of the richest provinces of their respective hemispheres: you may therefore conjecture, that both cities must exhibit the appearances necessarily resulting from riches. Peru abounding in gold, Lima is filled with inhabitants who enjoy all those gradations of pleasure, refinement, and luxury, which proceed from wealth. Carolina produces commodities, more valuable perhaps than gold, because they are gained by greater industry; it exhibits also on our northern stage, a display of riches and luxury, inferior indeed to the former, but far superior to what are to be seen in our northern towns. Its situation is admirable, being built at the confluence of two large rivers, which receive in their course a great number of inferior streams; all navigable in the spring, for flat boats. Here the produce of this extensive territory concentres; here therefore is the seat of the most valuable exportation; their wharfs, their docks, their magazines, are extremely convenient to facilitate this great commercial business.
Thomas Nelson Page is usually remembered for stories like “Marse Chan” that place him in the “Plantation School” of Southern writing. But “No Haid Pawn” is something else entirely. Rather than nostalgia for an era of elegant mansions tended by faithful servants, Page shows the human cost of creating the white-columned great houses and acknowledges the brutality that could lead slaves to rebel or flee into the swamps.
“No Haid Pawn” gestures back toward Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as both the Usher mansion and the empty mansion of Page's tale disappear at the end into a marsh. Page also employs a familiar Gothic plot device, the character forced to spend a night in a haunted house. While the ghosts that seem to menace the narrator may be rationally explained, far deeper horrors of the history of the house are revealed.
Text: In Ole Virginia (New York: Scribners, 1895).
NO HAID PAWN
It was a ghostly place in broad daylight, if the glimmer that stole in through the dense forest that surrounded it when the sun was directly overhead deserved this delusive name. At any other time it was—why, we were afraid even to talk about it! and as to venturing within its gloomy borders, it was currently believed among us that to do so was to bring upon the intruder certain death. I knew every foot of ground, wet and dry, within five miles of my father's house, except this plantation, for I had hunted by day and night every field, forest, and marsh within that radius; but the swamp and “ma’shes” that surrounded this place I had never invaded. The boldest hunter on the plantation would call off his dogs and go home if they struck a trail that crossed the sobby boundary-line of “No Haid Pawn.”
“Jack ‘my lanterns” and “evil sperits” only infested those woods, and the earnest advice of those whom we children acknowledged to know most about them was, “Don’t you never go nigh dyah honey; hit's de evil-speritest place in dis wull.”
Many of Cable's Strange True Stories of Louisiana (1890) are as truly Gothic as any fiction he wrote, and perhaps as anything in this volume.
Salomé Müller was a German immigrant child who was separated from her family, sold into slavery and grew up believing that she was black. She was freed after a lengthy court battle, and her saga was widely reported.
Slavery in the Americas depended on the legal fiction that a person was either black or white. Yet after generations of racial mixing, the reality, observable by anyone, was that there were people of every shade in between. There are many stories of people of color passing as white, and other stories of people, like Grace King's “Little Convent Girl,” involuntarily crossing the color line from white to black. Salomé Müller's sad story is a reductio ad absurdumof Southern racial dogma, and exposes the artificial construction upon which slavery was based.
Text: George Washington Cable, Strange True Stories of Louisiana (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889), 145–91.
SALOME MÜLLER, THE WHITE SLAVE (1818–45)
Salome and Her Kindred
She may be living yet, in 1889. For when she came to Louisiana, in 1818, she was too young for the voyage to fix itself in her memory. She could not, to-day, be more than seventy-five.
In Alsace, France, on the frontier of the Department of Lower Rhine, about twenty English miles from Strasburg, there was in those days, as I suppose there still is, a village called Langensoultz. The region was one of hills and valleys and of broad, flat meadows yearly overflowed by the Rhine. It was noted for its fertility; a land of wheat and wine, hop-fields, flax-fields, hay-stacks, and orchards.
It had been three hundred and seventy years under French rule, yet the people were still, in speech and traditions, German. Those were not the times to make them French. The land swept by Napoleon's wars, their firesides robbed of fathers and sons by the conscription, the awful mortality of the Russian campaign, the emperor's waning star, Waterloo—these were not the things or conditions to give them comfort in French domination. There was a widespread longing among them to seek another land where men and women and children were not doomed to feed the ambition of European princes.
W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard, was a leading historian, sociologist and controversial public intellectual for many decades.
“Of the Black Belt” is a chapter from The Souls of Black Folk, a foundational text of African American intellectual history. It was written during the nadir of postbellum life for black Southerners, when the brief gains of Reconstruction had been suppressed by Jim Crow segregation laws and lynching. The Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903, the year after Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots, the first novel in Dixon's popular Ku Klux Klan trilogy.
Apologists for slavery had rewritten Southern history and erased much of African American experience. Du Bois takes us on a tour of a Georgia county that is, at every point, steeped in the history of the three races that inhabited this land. He shows a countryside that had once enriched slave-owning cotton growers but is now impoverished by poor soil management, a depressed cotton market, absentee ownership and the lingering consequences of the war. We see ruined plantations, fallen great houses and the survivors—black and white—of the old era. Such stories have nourished generations of Southern writers.
Text: The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, IL: A. C. McClurg, 1903).
OF THE BLACK BELT
I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
As the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black,
Because the sun hath looked upon me:
My mother's children were angry with me;
They made me the keeper of the vineyards;
But mine own vineyard have I not kept.
THE SONG OF SOLOMON
Out of the North the train thundered, and we woke to see the crimson soil of Georgia stretching away bare and monotonous right and left. Here and there lay straggling, unlovely villages, and lean men loafed leisurely at the depots; then again came the stretch of pines and clay. Yet we did not nod, nor weary of the scene; for this is historic ground. Right across our track, three hundred and sixty years ago, wandered the cavalcade of Hernando de Soto, looking for gold and the Great Sea; and he and his foot-sore captives disappeared yonder in the grim forests to the west.
Poe's fame is universal and his influence on both poetry and prose is immense, and international. He may at first seem an unusual choice for a collection specifically on Southern Gothic. He was born in Boston and spent part of his childhood in England. His landscapes seem projections of dream or nightmare and are usually stripped of local reference. However, he had deep connections with the South, especially Richmond, Virginia, the home of the Allans, his adopted parents. He attended, for a time, the University of Virginia. Recent scholars have stressed Southern and racial themes in his works.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is a foundational text of the Southern Gothic. The doomed house (in both senses, a physical structure and a family) are found throughout Southern literature, and especially looms after the Civil War, when decaying mansions and a decaying plantation aristocracy could be seen everywhere in the deep South. W. E. B. Du Bois describes these families and houses with a historian's eyes, and they are to be seen in several stories in this collection, as well as in great twentieth-century Gothic novels such as William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Over all these houses falls the shadow of the Ushers.
Text: Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, 4 vols. (New York: Redfield, 1857).
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
Son cœur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il résonne.1
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.
Dessalines was the first leader of an independent Haiti. As a young man, he became embittered by the extreme brutality with which enslaved people in Haiti, then a French colony, were treated. In the Haiti Revolution, he rose to power after the betrayal and capture of Toussaint L’Ouverture by the French. After declaring Haiti an independent nation in 1804, Dessalines ordered the mass execution of French settlers, resulting in the deaths of 3,000–5,000 people of all ages and genders. In September 1804 Dessalines was declared Emperor Jacques I of Haiti by a group of Revolutionary generals. He was assassinated in 1806.
Text: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, “Liberty or Death Proclamation, 1 January 1804,” https://mjp.univ-perp.fr/constit/ht1804.htm, downloaded on July 18, 2019. Translated by Susan Castillo Street.
LIBERTY OR DEATH PROCLAMATION
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Governor-General, to the Inhabitants of Haiti
The most extraordinary crimes heard of, that would cause Nature itself to shudder, have been committed. The vessel has overflowed … At last the moment of revenge has arrived, and the implacable enemies of the Rights of Man have suffered just punishment for their crimes.
My arm, raised over their guilty heads, had refrained too long from striking. At that signal from a just God, your righteously armed hands have brought down the axe on the ancient tree of slavery and prejudice. Time, and the infernal politics of Europeans, had surrounded it with a triple shield of brass. You have torn away its armour and have placed it on your own hearts so that you can become as cruel and pitiless as your natural enemies. Like a mighty torrent that overflows its banks, your vengeful rage has swept all before it. Thus may all perish all those who tyrannise innocence, all those who oppress humankind.
And now? Burdened for centuries under an iron yoke, the sport of human passions, of their injustices and the whims of fate; mutilated victims of the greed of white Frenchmen, insatiable bloodsuckers who have fattened themselves on our toil; we suffered with unprecedented patience and resignation: should we watch these heathen hordes attempt our destruction, without regard to sex or age? Should we, men stripped of energy and virtue and delicate sensibility, not plunge the dagger of despair into their breasts?
King began writing out of annoyance at what she considered the unfair treatment of her native New Orleans by George Washington Cable. Her Balcony Stories (1893), which included “The Little Convent Girl,” are to be imagined as tales told among women sitting on a balcony on a hot New Orleans afternoon. King's work is in the tradition of women's regional realism, and her rejection of Cable's advanced views on civil rights places her also in the “plantation school” of conservative Southern fiction.
Nonetheless, “The Little Convent Girl” is an effective and nuanced story of a tragic mulatta. Much of the impact of her story comes from the girl's radical innocence, which the rough-hewn steamboat crew tries to protect. She has never seen the stars, because she has never been allowed outdoors at night. She is frightened and delighted by the world of experience opening to her, symbolized by the river beneath the river of the pilot's imagining. But this chaotic world includes the forces of sexuality and race in New Orleans, into which the little convent girl is about to be plunged.
Text: Grace King, Balcony Stories (New York: Century, 1893).
THE LITTLE CONVENT GIRL
She was coming down on the boat from Cincinnati, the little convent girl. Two sisters had brought her aboard. They gave her in charge of the captain, got her a state-room, saw that the new little trunk was put into it, hung the new little satchel up on the wall, showed her how to bolt the door at night, shook hands with her for good-by (good-bys have really no significance for sisters), and left her there. After a while the bells all rang, and the boat, in the awkward elephantine fashion of boats, got into midstream. The chambermaid found her sitting on the chair in the state-room where the sisters had left her, and showed her how to sit on a chair in the saloon. And there she sat until the captain came and hunted her up for supper. She could not do anything of herself; she had to be initiated into everything by some one else.
Leonora Sansay was born in Philadelphia in 1773. Her father died at sea shortly thereafter, and her mother's second husband owned the Half Moon Tavern, which was a gathering place for local politicians. It is possible that she may have met her patron Aaron Burr there. The nature of their relationship has been the subject of debate; most critics agree that she was his mistress, though others maintain that they were simply friends. Whatever the case, she married Louis Sansay, a New York merchant who had fled from St. Domingue following the turbulence in the wake of the slave revolt in the 1790s. In 1802, Louis Sansay traveled to St. Domingue to reclaim his plantation, taking Leonora with him. Burr had given assurances to Leonora that the French forces would subdue the rebellion in less than a month, but in 1803, the black army was victorious against the French, and Leonora and her husband fled to Cuba. Aaron Burr's fortunes also took a downturn. After killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, he was acquitted on charges of treason, after which he fled to Europe for four years.
Leonora Sansay was aware that her relationship with Burr had become a liability. She managed, however, to transform her eyewitness experiences in St. Domingue and her love affair with Burr into very considerable assets, exploiting the reading public's fascination with accounts of racialized violence and news of Burr's controversial career. Her Secret History caused a sensation when it was published in 1808, offering readers a vivid eyewitness account of the people, places and events in Haiti at the time of the Haitian Revolution.
Text: Leonora Sansay, Secret History caused sensation on its publication in 1802, offering to readers an extraordinarily eyewitness account of events in Haiti, with its vivid evocation of the historical moment it describes. (Philadelphia, PA: Bradford & Inskeep, 1808).
What a change has taken place here since my last letter was written! I mentioned that there was to be a grand review, and I also mentioned that the confidence General Le Clerc placed in the negroes was highly blamed, and justly, as he has found to his cost.
Victor Séjour was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1817. His parents were free gens de couleur, relatively affluent mixed-race people who nonetheless did not enjoy the same rights as those who were classified as white. They provided him with a solid education, and at the age of 19 he went to Paris. There he came to the attention of Cyrille Bissette, the influential editor of the Revue des Colonies, who published Séjour's short story “The Mulatto” (“Le Mulâtre”) in 1837.
“The Mulatto” is acknowledged as the first short fiction published by an African American. It makes a compelling argument against slavery, and is set in St. Domingue (present-day Haiti), where enslaved people were treated with extreme brutality. It tells the story of Georges, a mixed-race man, and evokes the complex network of family relationships between enslaved people and their owners, describing the sexual abuse of enslaved women and the unrelenting exploitation of slave labor. The character of Georges embodies the greatest fear of Southern slaveholders, that of armed slave insurrection, which in this case involves not only rebellion but also patricide.
Text: Victor Séjour, “Le Mulâtre,” http://french.centenary.edu/textes/mulatre.html, downloaded March 7, 2018, at 11:54. Translated by Susan Castillo Street.
The first rays of dawn had just begun to illuminate the dark mountain peaks when I left the Cape for Saint-Marc, a small town in St. Domingue, which is now the republic of Haiti. I had seen so many beautiful landscapes and tall deep forests that I had begun to feel indifferent to these stalwart beauties of Creation. However, when I beheld the aspect of this town, with its picturesque vegetation and its bizarre and novel nature, I was dazed and astonished at the sublime diversity of God's works. Upon my arrival, I was accosted by an old Negro, at least seventy years of age. His stride was firm, his head held high, his figure imposing and vigorous; the only thing that revealed his age was the remarkable whiteness of his curly hair. He wore a large straw hat, as is the custom of that country, and coarse grey linen trousers, with a plain batiste jacket.
The Gothic is a dark window into the fears and taboos of a culture. This collection brings together a dozen chilling tales of the nineteenth-century American South with nonfiction texts that illuminate them and ground them in their historical context. The tales are from writers with enduring, worldwide reputations (e.g., Edgar A. Poe), and others whose work will be unknown to most readers. Indeed, one of the stories has not been reprinted for over a hundred years, and little is known about its author, E. Levi Brown.
Similarly, the historical selections are from a range of authors, some canonical, others not, ranging from Thomas Jefferson and the great historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois to the relatively obscure Leonora Sansay. Some of these historical readings are themselves as disturbingly Gothic as any of the tales. Indeed, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are tenuous in the Gothic South. It is our contention that Southern Gothic tales are essentially realistic fiction and, even at their most grotesque and haunting, are closely linked to the realities of southern life.
All Gothic writers disturb and sometimes delight us by evoking our fears. The Gothic is a literature of crossing borders, often forbidden borders: between consciousness and nightmare, known and unknown, civilization and savagery, the living and dead … and the list could be extended almost forever. Gothic confronts taboos and universal fears, but it also provides a chart of the fears of a particular culture, at a particular time.
In America, the great fears, taboos and boundaries often concern race. In Playing in the Dark Toni Morrison explores the issue of “Africanism” in American culture, by which she means the system of assumptions and fears that white Americans have used to define themselves and black Americans. This system pervades all aspects of American culture. Morrison uses the metaphor of the fishbowl: even though it is transparent and easily overlooked, it shapes and contains the life within. Morrison teaches us to be alert for black characters, often silent, on the margins of American stories. And they may be felt even when they are not physically present. No slaves appear in Poe's “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for example, but the story gestures toward slave rebellion, the greatest fear of the Old South.
Nat Turner led a slave uprising in 1831 in which some sixty white Virginians were killed. Gray was a young lawyer who interviewed Turner, his exact contemporary, while Turner was awaiting trial. It is impossible to determine the accuracy of the resulting pamphlet, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1832). There has been much critical discussion over the degree to which Turner's authentic voice can be heard in Gray's retelling.
Gray's pamphlet is the basis for William Styron's controversial novel by the same name, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1967.
Text: Thomas Ruffin Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southhampton, Va. as Fully and Voluntarily Made to Thomas R. Gray (Baltimore, MD: Thomas Ruffin Gray, 1831). Downloaded from DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A small number of obvious spelling errors have been silently corrected.
“THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER”
CONFESSION. Agreeable to his own appointment, on the evening he was committed to prison, with permission of the jailer, I visited NAT on Tuesday the 1st November, when, without being questioned at all, he commenced his narrative in the following words:—Sir,—You have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it—To do so I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born. I was thirty-one years of age the 2d of October last, and born the property of Benj. Turner, of this county. In my childhood a circumstance occurred which made an indelible impression on my mind, and laid the ground work of that enthusiasm, which has terminated so fatally to many, both white and black, and for which I am about to atone at the gallows. It is here necessary to relate this circumstance—trifling as it may seem, it was the commencement of that belief which has grown with time, and even now, sir, in this dungeon, helpless and forsaken as I am, I cannot divest myself of.
Hearn considered himself an American writer, though he was born on an island in the Ionian Sea to Greek and Irish parents, was raised in France and England and died a citizen of Japan. He lived for several years in New Orleans and explored its culture in fiction, journalism and even a cookbook. It is sometimes claimed that he invented New Orleans as a literary subject. This distinction would have to be shared with Cable, King and Chopin, but he did popularize a vision of the Crescent City as beautiful, haunted and exotic. His fascination with the weird and supernatural would continue in his writings about Japan and China.
Among Hearn's writings about New Orleans are several ghost stories, some set against a realistic background, others, like “The Ghostly Kiss,” written in a fantastic style that recalls Poe’s.
Text: Lafcadio Hearn, Fantastics and Other Fancies (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1914).
THE GHOSTLY KISS
The theatre was full. I cannot remember what they were playing. I did not have time to observe the actors. I only remember how vast the building seemed. Looking back, I saw an ocean of faces stretching away almost beyond the eye's power of definition to the far circles where the seats rose tier above tier in lines of illumination. The ceiling was blue, and in the midst a great mellow lamp hung suspended like a moon, at a height so lofty that I could not see the suspending chain. I fancied that the theatre was hung with hangings of black velvet, bordered with a silver trim fringe that glimmered like tears. The audience were all in white.
All in white!—I asked myself whether I was not in some theatre or tropical city—why all in white? I could not guess. I fancied at moments that I could perceive a moonlight landscape through far distant oriel windows, and the crests of palms casting moving shadows like gigantic spiders. The air was sweet with a strange and a new perfume; it was a drowsy air—a poppied air, in which the waving of innumerable white fans made no rustle, no sound.
George Washington Cable was born in New Orleans in 1844. After serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he became a journalist, contributing articles to the New Orleans Picayune. His activities as a reporter exposed him to the complexities of racial and social structures in the South and provided a rich vein of material which would later serve as inspiration for his historical fiction. His short stories were initially published by Scribner's Monthly as local color fiction, and subsequently as part of a collection, Old Creole Days. In his fiction, Cable depicts the collision between the rigid racial classifications of the Anglo-Americans who poured into New Orleans after 1803 and the intricate webs of family allegiances in Francophone New Orleans.
In “Belles Demoiselles Plantation,” we encounter Coronel de Charleu, a member of the old New Orleans Creole elite, and his mixed-race Choctaw relation, Injin’ Charlie. The story is notable for its depiction of the ethical dilemmas arising from the convoluted nature of interracial sexuality as it collides with the arbitrary racial categories of nineteenth-century Louisiana.
Text: George Washington Cable, Old Creole Days (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1879).
BELLES DEMOISELLES PLANTATION
THE original grantee was Count—, assume the name to be De Charleu; the old Creoles never forgive a public mention. He was the French king's commissary. One day, called to France to explain the lucky accident of the commissariat having burned down with the account-books inside, he left his wife, a Choctaw Comtesse, behind.
Arrived at court, his excuses were accepted, and that tract granted him where afterwards stood Belles Demoiselles Plantation. A man cannot remember every thing! In a fit of forgetfulness he married a French gentlewoman, rich and beautiful, and “brought her out.” However, “All's well that ends well”; a famine had been in the colony, and the Choctaw Comtesse had starved, leaving nought but a half-caste orphan family lurking on the edge of the settlement, bearing our French gentlewoman's own new name, and being mentioned in Monsieur's will.
And the new Comtesse—she tarried but a twelvemonth, left Monsieur a lovely son, and departed, led out of this vain world by the swamp fever.