The history of Louisiana has generally been studied as an American state that was once a French colony. That is, the point of reference is the United States. However, a profitable inquiry into the development of Louisiana may be undertaken from the vantage point of French history. It is often a history that seems a mirror image of our own. For instance, what we call the Louisiana Purchase, the French call La Vente, that is, the Sale. This Summer Teacher Institute offers an examination of the French literature of Louisiana through the filter of French history depicted in the art of the Empire and beyond. The goal is to understand the political and historical underpinnings of a body of literature that is still in the process of being discovered.
While the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 is a well-known historical fact, few Americans really understand the reasons why Napoleon chose to sell his expansive New World possessions to the fledgling American nation. From the American point of view the reasons are obvious — our manifest destiny mandated the purchase of the vast Louisiana territories so that America would stretch from “sea to shining sea.” Indeed, our notion of a manifest destiny created powerful internal pressures within the United States that insured that an eventual acquisition of the Louisiana territories would take place. However, an awareness of why we bought Louisiana provides only a partial understanding of the historical underpinnings of our state; we must also understand why it was sold.
In France, extraordinarily powerful forces were at work. The cataclysmic years of the Revolution, beginning in 1789 and continuing through the Terror in 1793, the Haitian Revolution from 1791-1803, the instability of the First Republic, the establishment of the Directorate, then the Consulate and finally the Empire — all this served to focus the attention of France on the survival of the nation rather than upon colonial expansion overseas. Much of this history has been recorded by artists of the period and these productions offer excellent material with which teachers can retell our own Louisiana history. For instance, in Jacques-Louis David’s painting, Oath of the Horati, the elder Horace must make the ultimate sacrifice to save his country; he must offer up his sons to preserve the republic and his honor. At a time when art was used to convey ideas through allegory, the message was clear: the needs of the individual were secondary to the needs of the nation. This way of thinking characterized the entire revolutionary period and explains how images of sacrifice molded French public opinion about her overseas colonies. Although these colonial “children” had been established at great cost, the French public had to sacrifice them to preserve the gains of the Revolution.
Through art, we will also explore how the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803 influenced the sale of Louisiana. Anne-Louis Girodet’s painting, Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, offers an excellent example. Bellay, a former slave from San Domingo, became a Deputy to the French Convention in 1794. There he delivered a passionate speech pledging the “blacks to the cause of the Revolution and asking the Convention to declare slavery abolished” (C.L. James, The Black Jacobins. Vintage Books, 1989). Girodet shows Bellay leaning on a white marble bust of the philosopher Raynal who had written a treatise against slavery in 1770. By acclamation the Convention declared the liberty of all Negroes. These actions had profound consequences for Louisiana, which had, like Haiti, built an economy based on slave labor. While Louisiana was not bound by the decrees of the Convention since the territory had passed to Spanish control, this body’s actions had profound consequences on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, Napoleon had to fear the possibility of a new slave uprisings, such as the bloody revolt on the Poydras plantation in 1795; this was an excellent reason to sale the colony. Ironically, the prospect of purchase by a nation that accepted slavery must have become more palatable for the rich planters of Louisiana who faced ruin if the colony had remained a French possession.
The sale of Louisiana echoes within the literature of the period in unexpected ways. Each of the literary works examined in this Institute — LeBlanc de Villeneufve’s L’Héroisme de Poucha-Houmma, Alfred Mercier’s Habitation Saint-Ybars, Rouquette’s La Nouvelle Atala (see Girodet’s The Entombment of Atala), Sidonie de la Houssaye’s Pouponne et Balthazar, George Dessommes’ Tante Cydette, as well as the poetry of New Orleans’ Creoles of color — anchors itself within the domain of French literary and cultural history and each work tells our history from a point of view that is distinctly “louisianais.” Unfortunately, only one of these extraordinarily important works exists in English translation, but without them, our history is incomplete.
In L’Héroisme de Poucha-Houmma, written in 1814, Villeneufve creates a five-act drama in an effort to influence the French to return to Louisiana to protect the Houma nation. The Indians, former allies of the French, were being expelled from their ancestral homelands by American settlers. It is a tantalizing glimpse into French-Indian relationships of the period and shows a longing for the “good old days” before the Purchase.
Alfred Mercier, a Creole doctor from New Orleans, left a remarkable legacy of poetry and novels. Clearly influenced by the Naturalism of the French writer Emile Zola, Mercier’s Habitation Saint-Ybars traces the“social history of slaves and masters” on the McDonoh plantation near New Orleans. In conjunction with this work, Institute participants will read Colbert’s Code Noir (Black Codes) to gain a better understanding of the laws concerning slaves and their owners. This astonishing psychological study of slavery written by a Creole doctor in 1885 will stand as a landmark in Louisiana literature.
Rouquette’s Indian legend, La Nouvelle Atala, tells the story of an Indian’s girl’s spiritual odyssey. Atala, who can be seen as a symbol for Louisiana francophones, lives in a world to which she has become a stranger. Fleeing a dominant but soulless society that, according to the newspapers of the period, considered the French inhabitants of Louisiana “as inferior beings, incapable of governing themselves like English-speaking Americans” (Réginald Hamel, La Louisiane créole, littéraire, politique et sociale. Édition Leméac, Ottawa, 1984.), Atala retreats to the forest to undertake her voyage of personal discovery. Reading Rouquette, institute participants will discover our Louisiana French Whitman.
Sidonie de la Houssaye’s Pouponne et Balthazar echoes Longfellow’s Evangeline. Houssaye relates the story of her great grandfather, Pierre Bossier, who left Canada during the exodus known as the “grand dérangement.” Through this work readers will discover the personalized account of the cataclysmic event that helped shape all of modern Louisiana.
Teachers across the state will delight in the extraordinarily rich poetry by Creoles of color. This work, much of which appeared in the first black daily newspaper in the United States, La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans, and its predecessor, L’Union bears the mark of a politically astute and engaged public. This material has been made available thanks to the careful study of James Cowan in his work, La Marseillaise noire et d’autres poèmes des créoles de couleur néo-orléanais.
George Dessommes’ Tante Cydette, a tale set in New Orleans’ Vieux Carré during the waning days of Creole dominance of the city, offers an extraordinary glimpse of late 19th century Louisiana. This work, an allegory of New Orleans’ European Creole culture, tells the story of Louise, a young Creole who loves a wealthy Frenchman and who wishes to unite her life with his. However, her mother tells her: “Forget all these poetic dreams that would make you so unhappy […] Stay in our place, and never raise our eyes to things that will be impossible for us to ever acquire.” Dessommes’ message is clear: Creole Louise[iana] can never dream of uniting with her beloved France and must accept assimilation into American culture.
A major goal of this Summer Teacher Institute is to provide educators with material that has been unavailable for many years. Institute participants have worked to put this material into historical and social contexts that will make it appropriate for classroom use on the middle and high school levels. In the pages of this site teachers will find pedagogical materials, definitions, glossaries, homework assignments, as well as examples of Louisiana poetry, novels, stories, and historically significant documents which will be invaluable resources for students, teachers, and researchers across the state.