'Absalom, Absalom!' and Faulkner's Erroneous Dating of the Haitian Revolution

By Godden, Richard | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

'Absalom, Absalom!' and Faulkner's Erroneous Dating of the Haitian Revolution


Godden, Richard, The Mississippi Quarterly


In 1791 slaves revolted on San Domingo: "the world's richest colony" was overrun in a black revolution, whose forces "defeated the Spanish; inflicted a defeat of unprecedented proportions on the British, and then made their country the graveyard of Napoleon's magnificent army." By 1804 the Americas had their first black national state, the independent republic of Haiti. In 1823 Thomas Sutpen leaves Virginia for the West Indies, where, in 1827, he puts down an uprising among slaves on a French sugar plantation on Haiti. As due recompense, he marries the owner's daughter and achieves a son (1831). The dates are important since they indicate that Faulkner has the hero of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) "earn" the properties upon which he will eventually base his plantation "design," improperly. There were neither slaves nor French plantations on Haiti in 1827. Faulkner's chronology creates an anachronism which rewrites one of the key facts of nineteenth-century black American history, in what looks suspiciously like an act of literary counterrevolution.

Those Faulkner scholars who notice urge "error"(2): I am unconvinced. The Haitian revolution had lasting consequences for the slaveholding states of the South, where, during the 1790s, white panics about slave revolts were endemic. "Indeed, Saint Domingo [became] the symbol for black liberation struggles throughout the hemisphere and touched off a series of new insurrectionary attempts"(3): Gabriel Prossser in 1800, Denmark Vesey in 1822, Nat Turner in 1831; to turn to the major North American black rebellions is to discover allusions to Haiti.(4) Nor does the Haitian example fade with the onset of the Civil War; in 1864, in Natchez, ex-slave Mississippi soldiers in the Union Army reacted violently when the city's military commander tried to force freedmen to work abandoned plantations: a Northern missionary, S. G. Wright "trembled," fearing "blood equalling the day of vengeance in the island of Hayti."(5) Mary Chesnut's diary entry for July 14, 1865, notes that "On our place"

our people were all at home -- quiet, orderly, respectful and at their usual work. In

point of fact things looked unchanged. There was nothing to show that any one

of them had ever seen a Yankee or knew that there was one in existence.

However, she follows her reassuring observations with a piece of unattributed gossip: "We are in for a new St. Domingo all the same. The Yankees have raised the devil, and now they cannot guide him."(6)

In the South, Haiti is synonymous with "revolution," and whether that be positively or negatively viewed it is not something about which Southern authors, with an interest in antebellum history, lightly make mistakes. Moreover, the evidence of Absalom, Absalom! suggests that Faulkner knows more than enough about San Domingo to put its revolution in the right century. He knows that Haitian soil is a cemetery on the grandest scale. Accounts of the colony's eighteenth-century slave population vary, but historians agree that death rates were extremely high; Rod Prince reckons the total number of slaves imported between 1691 and 1791 at 864,000, and adds that "Some estimates have suggested that the equivalent of the entire number of slaves was replaced every twenty years."(7) Faulkner notes that the earth, "manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation . . . cried out for vengeance."(8) He knows that French planters were leading purchasers in the eighteenth-century slave trade: C.L.R. James puts the figure for slave imports around 1789 at 40,000 a year,(9) a figure which translates into Faulkner's sense of an island poised between Africa, ravaged by slavers, and America, seat of "rational" slave production:

a little island . . . which was the halfway point between what we call the jungle and

what we call civilization, halfway between the dark inscrutable continent from which

the black blood . …

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