By Leon-Francois Hoffmann
Pueblo, Colorado: Passeggiata Press, 2000.
Comments by Bob Corbett
In 1984 Leon-Francois Hoffmann published ESSAYS ON HAITIAN LITERATURE. (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press). This volume had only one printing and is quite difficult to find. I am privileged to have a copy in my own library and have used it with profit many times. Recently Passeggiata Press decided to bring this volume out again. Hoffmann chose to present several of the essays almost unchanged, to add some significant material to one of the essays in the original volume, and finally to add 10 essays which were not in the first volume, most of which had been published in French in the 1970s and 80s which Hoffmann presents here for the first time in English translation.
In the Forward Hoffmann says: “Most of the original essays have been brought up to date, taking into account recently published primary and critical works; some mistakes and stylistic infelicities have been corrected.”
I didn’t find this to be quite the case. I only found two of the original essays noticeably changed, the essay entitled “Slavery and Race in Haitian Letters” and “The Image of Woman in Haitian Poetry.” The other carry over essays seemed to remain virtually unchanged in content though some stylistic changes are noted. Those carry overs are:
All but two of those simply needed no changes. However, I can’t help being disappointed that the second and third listed were not amended. There has been a dramatic change in the past twenty years, especially with the growth of raised political consciousness in Haiti since the fall of Duvalier, and the fundamental problematic in the concerns about the Haitian language have dramatically changed. In Hoffmann’s essay they are much more concerned with a more French version of Creole vs a more Creole version. Today with the official new orthography and the adoption of Creole for both schools and official documents the entire question is placed in a new light. This leave the early Kauffmann essays of much more historical interest that addressing the topic as such.
These are minor criticisms, however, of an over-all fantastic book and marvelous contribution to Haitian scholarship.
Two of the new additions stand out for me. In my own historical writing on Haiti I have taken a quite strong stand that one should regard the Spanish treatment of the Taino/Arawaks as a case of genocide. This view was vehemently attacked by the Taino/Arawak tribal association on what I took to be largely grounds of political correctness rather than historical accuracy. They just wanted to world to be different that I think the historical evidence showed and complained of my insensitivity. However, later on some historians raised much more serious objections to my argument and left me in a position where I believe I have to revise my thesis. Thus it was a joy for me to discover Kauffmann’s essay “The Indian Element in the Haitian Collective Consciousness” which turns out to be a much stronger case for what he calls the “ethnocide” of the Taino/Arawak than my own case, and leaves me with less to revise that I had originally thought. Now, armed with the powerful analyses of the primary sources which Kauffmann reveals, which show that little remnants of either Taino blood or culture can really be shown to exist in contemporary Haiti, my job of reassessment may well leave me with less revision to do. What was a dreaded job for me is looking more and more appealing.
A second essay of special interest is entitled “The Ceremony at Bois Caiman.” Here again Kauffmann uses his meticulous analysis of original sources to argue that there never was such a ceremony and that its actual originals were in the writings of a Frenchman who was using it to denigrate the slaves, not celebrate a motivational or mystical moment. Kauffman’s tracing of the development and changing oh the story in Haitian literature is a tour-de-force of in-depth scholarship.
Another first time essay in English translation is “Antenor Firmin and the United States” in which Kauffmann does some interesting comparisons between the person, character and political life of Firmin and of Jean-Betrand Aristide whom he sees to be much like Firmin in many essential manners.
He concludes his newly presented essays with two very short pieces examining the novel Amour by Marie Chauvet and the writing of Haitian writer Emile Ollivier who went into exile in 1975.
Hoffmann offers a fully revised bibliography which is completely updated.
This is a very scholarly book, yet not a general read for all. I found it to be a superb overview of Haitian literature and a great guide for further study. I would highly recommend it to any who wish to know and understand Haitian literature in scholarly depth.
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