Annotation: Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse’s “The Problem of Population and the Form of the American Novel” (2008)

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This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse. “The Problem of Population and the Form of the American Novel.” American Literary History 20:4 (Winter 2008): 667-685. Print.

In this article Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue that “novels written during the period of the early republic” resemble Barbary captivity narratives in that they “imagine a community in cosmopolitan terms” (668). The authors suggest that by examining these captivity narratives, it becomes possible to recognize how early American texts resist definition or interpretation from within a strict national framework. For instance, works such as Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive challenge “fixed national identities” and boundaries by ushering characters into a space of captivity in which “people… are defined, not so much by their nation of origin, or home, as by their encounters in a world produced by the circulation of goods and peoples” (672). In Armstrong and Tennenhouse’s perspective, this interaction within a cosmopolitan community, where individuals establish “kinship by trading women, goods, and information across the Atlantic world” becomes the quintessential feature of early American novels (674). The two also extend their argument further by considering the “problem of population… namely, the problem of containing the larger category of universal humanity within the smaller category of the nation” (676). In doing so, they discuss the evolution of the Barbary captivity narrative and its role in transforming the American novel into its “domestic” or “‘national’ form” (679). Ultimately, Armstrong and Tennenhouse’s analysis of the Barbary captivity narratives presents an intriguing framework for analyzing Margaretta’s period of confinement with Roulant’s mansion and, more broadly, Read’s attempt to address the “problem of population” through the structure and form of her novel.

Annotation: Jeremy D. Popkin’s “Facing Racial Revolution” (2003)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Popkin, Jeremy D. “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:4 (2003): 511-33. Print.

In his article Popkin discusses how the success of the Haitian Revolution deeply challenged Euro-American conceptions of race and the racial hierarchy itself. Whereas blacks were previously considered inferior, irrational beings, the insurrection showed that they could successfully organize to overthrow a white colonizing power and in effect seize one of Europe’s most lucrative colonial possessions at the time. Popkin specifically analyzes how first-person testimonies about the revolution reveal a crisis in identity as these authors struggle to reconcile their understanding of the Western “self” against the new black “other.” Because it was before inconceivable that blacks could even stage a revolution there was no formula for how to discuss or even think about it when it actually happened so writers needed to create conditions where it “became thinkable” (515). In his first-hand captivity narrative, Historick Recital, M. Gros suggested that “the real instigators of the insurrection were either the educated mulattoes or counter-revolutionary whites” (521). He asserted that the officials sent to St. Domingue deliberately acted passive because they wanted to spark chaos in the colony to demonstrate the inefficiency of the revolutionary party in France and precipitate the restoration of the monarchy. Popkin emphasizes, however, that Gros’ account also revealed that blacks could be just as skillful political and military leaders as whites, particularly with respect to Toussaint L’Overture. Popkin further notes that in Gros’ attempt to reach the highest ranks of administration and influence policy, he achieved “a position that required him to identify, at least to some extent, with the goals of a black-led movement,” as well as the black leaders themselves, who he recognized as generous, intelligent, and rational (518). Popkin also discusses how Michel Etienee Descourtilz’ first-person captivity narrative demonstrates a similar crisis in identity, where he encountered blacks who deeply challenged his preconceived racial stereotypes. While Descourtilz took comfort in his medical knowledge as evidence of the superiority of European science, like Gros, he was also deeply implicated in the black revolutionary movement as he helped the army resist French forces. Popkin ultimately contends that the most unsettling aspect of Gros’ and Descourtilz’s accounts is that they not only revealed how people of color could successfully repel a white colonizing power but also how they could manipulate whites into employing their knowledge about law and medicine to further their own revolutionary movement.

While Popkin focuses on how first person narratives “represent not only the construction but also the deconstruction of the autonomous white male personality” with particular regards to race, I am interested in examining how Sansay’s Secret History differs as a female account of the revolution, one written from the perspective of an American woman who writes about captivity from a detached position (527). I believe her novel offers a means of analyzing the fraught gender relations between men and women in St. Domingue as well as white women and women of color, which Popkin largely overlooks in his own article.

Annotation: bell hooks’ “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” (1999)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “The Productive, Political Power of Love in Nina Revoyr’s Southland.”

hooks, bell. “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance.” Black Looks Race and Representation. New York: South End Press, 1999. 9-20. Print.

“In her essay, bell hooks critiques how students and scholars are more interested and comfortable with discussing “black self-hatred,” how blacks have desired and “tried to attain whiteness,” rather than the possibility of “loving blackness” (10). She emphasizes the need to deeply interrogate and move beyond this “black obsession with whiteness,” which merely focuses attention on oppressive white power structures and hierarchies, in some ways reinforcing their influence over black lives, rather than investing effort to articulate new modes of seeing and understanding the black body that can be truly liberating (11). hooks asserts that the most effective means of combating white supremacy, both external and internalized racism, is for individuals to love blackness, to not simply love themselves in spite of their blackness but because of their blackness. But she also notes the extreme difficulties that lie in the process as the structures of white supremacy continue to “seduce black folks with the promise of mainstream success if only [they] are willing to negate the value of blackness” (17). While hooks admits that black people who accept the status quo and conform to whiteness, will probably achieve greater material rewards and upward mobility, she emphasizes that this conception that one has to deny blackness and black culture in order to attain such levels of socio-economic success will only precipitate a precarious crisis in black identity.

hooks ultimately suggests the need for people learn how to love themselves and how that act of loving can serve as a real form of political resistance because it directly challenges the logics of white supremacist thought, which cast blackness as that which should not and cannot be loved. Revoyr’s Southland takes on this political project, as Jackie Ishida learns how to love herself, her history, her people, and the members of the black LA community who she realizes are also part of her family.

Annotation: Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “An Unthinkable History” (1995)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print.

In his article, Trouillot offers important historical background on the Haitian Revolution. He exposes the paradox of Enlightenment thought, which celebrated universal human rights and equality while oppressive institutions of slavery and racial oppression still persisted. Trouillot asserts that “Colonization provided the most potent impetus for the transformation of European ethnocentrism into scientific racism,” where the enslavement of blacks were rationalized as a result of their inherent biological inferiority (77). He demonstrates that for the first time, humanity was considered in terms of varying degrees, where some groups were more human than others. It was widely believed that at the very bottom of this scale, “enslaved Africans and their descendents could not envision freedom—let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom” (73). Trouillot therefore argues that even as it happened, the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the people of the time and even afterwards as world nations refused to officially acknowledge the new republic. Trouillot borrows Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “unthinkable” as referring to “that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions are phrased” (82). He describes how French delegates, such as Jean-Pierre Brissot, could not immediately accept the news that a revolution had occurred in Sain Domingue, outlining reasons for its sheer impossibility. Trouillot further asserts that when such facts became undeniable, much effort was expended to specifically narrate the revolution in a way that would fit into a white European worldview and uphold its racial and cultural hierarchies.

He discusses two different “formulas of silence” employed, one that involves complete erasure of the Haitian Revolution all together through archival omission and the another that attempts to trivialize the event by ignoring its radical, singular components (96). As examples of the first Trouillot cites Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age o Revolutions 1793-1843, which makes almost no reference to the Haitian Revolution and the way in which French historians have long downplayed the significance of losing Haiti, its most valuable colonial possession at the time. (99, 101). The second, which Trouillot seems to identify as even more troubling, is how specialists on Haiti persist to search for external factors that influenced the revolution rather than accepting and recognizing the internal work of the slaves themselves.

Trouillot’s emphasis on the importance of analyzing how the Haitian Revolution is narrated and for what ends will be particularly helpful in formulating my own thesis. In Secret History, Sansay herself seems to directly comment on how the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the French who believed that it would be easy for them to quickly re-colonize the island. I will examine further whether this is due to her status as an American in Saint Domingue. I am also interested in exploring how the narrative addresses other realms of the “unthinkable” in regards to gender relations—the murderous jealousy of Creole ladies and women of color as well as Clara’s own horrifying experience of domestic abuse which was “unthinkable” for her sister.