HBW Emerging Scholars: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the “Slave Narrative” Genre

[by Amanda M. Sladek]

The HBW Emerging Scholars series offers graduate student scholars the chance to share pieces that speak to their own critical interests in more depth than usual blog posts. Today’s post is by University of Kansas graduate student Amanda M. Sladek, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition.

Toussaint L’Ouverture is known as the father of Haitian independence and the leader of the most successful slave rebellion in world history. He is also considered one of the most prolific writers of the Haitian Revolution, authoring hundreds of letters and political documents. Foremost among these documents is The Memoir of General Toussaint L’Ouverture. Today, this text is often regarded as an example of the “slave narrative” genre, but this label reflects the history of American abolitionism more than L’Ouverture’s own life and legacy.

Though the word “memoir” has come to be synonymous with autobiography for English-speaking audiences, the text in question is actually a letter written to Napoleon Bonaparte while L’Ouverture was imprisoned for treason. This letter, a plea for clemency, highlights L’Ouverture’s military success and loyalty to the French government. After L’Ouverture’s death, the text was published first in French (as Mémoires du Général Toussaint-l’Ouverture écrits par lui-même), then in English. The English translation was published in the U.S. in 1865—the height of the American abolitionist movement and of public demand for slave narratives.

Despite the fact that L’Ouverture’s memoir was written as a personal petition, translator John Relly Beard forced his version of the text to fit the rigid generic structure of the American slavery narrative: he translated the word Mémoires in the title as “memoir” rather than “petition,” added an engraved portrait of L’Ouverture to the beginning of the text as a marker of authenticity, and presented L’Ouverture’s nonstandard French in the florid, sentimental language characteristic of nineteenth-century novels and slave narratives. Most interestingly, he packaged his translation with a previously published biography of L’Ouverture, a move that parallels the genre convention of prefacing a slave narrative with an introduction by a white editor or amanuensis.

Through these rhetorical choices, Beard presented the text in the genre of the slave narrative, a genre that the source text subverts more than it fulfills. The slave narrative genre was more marketable to his American audience, who turned the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs into commercial successes. Beard’s choices served a political purpose, as well. The primary purpose of American slavery narratives was to advocate for the abolition of slavery, and by shaping L’Ouverture’s text to fit that model, Beard was able to use the text (which does not advocate for the abolition of slavery) to further the abolitionist cause.

The Memoir of General Toussaint L’Ouverture can be productively situated in a variety of genres—prison memoir, captivity narrative, testimonial, and Francophone slavery narrative, to name a few. However, its persistent inclusion in the (American) “slave narrative” genre speaks to the power of translators and editors to shape public perception of a text. This informs the way scholars must approach all translated material, especially translated historical documents (which must be translated across both cultural and temporal contexts).

As globalization increases the popularity of translated life writing, readers must also be aware of the difficulties inherent in the translation process. Translation by necessity involves mediation, another person (often from a different sociocultural context) imposing his or her perspective and assumptions on the text. Translation across languages entails translation across cultures and, in this case, across genres.