Slavery and the Historical Imagination: A Review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man

Slavery and the Historical Imagination: A Review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man

Today’s contribution to our fiction roundtable comes from Timothy J. Williams, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon. You can read previous and subsequent entries by using the links here.


In 1997, Patrick Chamoiseau, author of a dozen works about his native home of Martinique, published Slave Old Man in Creole and French. Now in 2018, the beautiful English translation by Linda Coverdale makes this short yet sophisticated novel accessible to American audiences. Set “in slavery times in the sugar isles,” or the early nineteenth-century French West Indies, the novel illustrates the raw operation of plantation slavery in a place that white southerners both coveted and critiqued in the Civil War era. The French West Indies were strategic islands in a broader world system of slavery and sugar. As Matthew Karp explains, southern slaveholders kept a watchful eye on these islands as part of a broad, “hemispheric defense of slavery.” After the French abolished slavery on the islands in 1848, they explicitly argued that economic decline on the islands was the fault of disorder that emancipation wrought.[1] Thus, a story of an escaped slave, young or old, would have (and did) instill fear in the minds of the region’s ruling classes.

The novel follows the one slave least expected to escape—a silent and sagacious old man who is never named in the novel—as he flees his master, running and limping through a rain forest, with a bloodhound on his heels. This simple plot of the escape of a never-named old slave man, however, is the only thing simple about Chamoiseau’s novel. When the structures of enslavement—mastery, violence, fences, and patrols—crumble, the reader is left with a disorder so palpable that it becomes transcendent. In the process, the novel at once unearths the traumatic world of slavery and the nature of history.[2]

Indeed the slave old man’s “Master,” though he rarely inhabits the narrative’s foreground, acts as sadistically as Simon Legree or Edward Covey. To underscore the master’s inhumanity, Chamoiseau manufactures an alter ego for him in a ferocious hound, or “mastiff.” “The slaves hated these dogs in a way that can no longer be imagined,” but “the mastiff expressed the cruelty of the Master and that plantation.”[3] He was the “master’s rudderless soul” and the slaves’ “double suffering.”[4] The master trained this brooding creature to maul any slave who ventured beyond the pale. Yet slave old man managed to go undetected long enough to escape. When the dog realized slave old man had run, undetected, he howled so ominously that the master unleased his rage, literally, and sent the dog into the forest after his runaway property.

Thus slave old man embarks on an epic journey into a primeval forest, pregnant with the waters of new birth. The jungle assembled the body which he never felt he possessed in slavery: “His run had propelled his flesh to its ultimate limit and his formerly separate organs, reacting en masse, passing beyond all distress, kept on going, leaving him panting with innocence in a hazy awareness of himself he had never known before.”[5] In his flight, though the mastiff’s thumping paws “almost matched the rhythm of his heart,” slave old man “rediscovers a primordial darkness” and “feels himself penetrating into the cavern of ages.”[6] He emerges from the cavern not “slave old man” but “the old man who had been a slave.”[7] And, for the first time in the novel, Chamoiseau moves the narrative from third-person omniscient to the first person.

This is a hero’s journey of classical epic. At one point, falling into a spring of “icy-icy water,” the old man who had been a slave encounters “once again the nightmares of the slave-ship hold,” indelibly marked in his memory.[8] A will to live helps him free himself and continue his flight. Despite breaking a leg bone, encountering a snake, and ultimately meeting the mastiff “face-to-face,”[9] the slave old man invokes the memories of his ancestors, draws from their strength, and becomes himself in the process. Rather than spoil the book’s plot entirely, suffice to say that the journey ends. But for historians, it’s not so much the journey that matters as the way Chamoiseau uses the novel as a broader philosophy of history.

The novel provokes a meditation on history that will likely interest scholars across disciplines. In the book’s final chapter, an anthropologist discovers bones, including that from a broken leg, which he described as “a cartload of memoires–histories–stories and eras gathered together.”[10] Instinctually, he feels that these bones powerfully tell a story of shared humanity. Though historians generally don’t work in ossuaries, the brittle pages of archives, like bones, likewise expose complex, haunting human records.

Integrating memories and stories are of great interest to cultural historians of gender such as myself. But we often fail to move out of the tidy work of categories inspired by the social science side of our academic heritage. I have grown increasingly frustrated with the continued reliance on invented paradigms (i.e., honor, southern manhood, martial manhood, restrained manhood, and even intellectual manhood, which is the subject of my first book).[11] Chamoiseau’s world of slavery and freedom, however, is messy, violent, visceral, corporeal, and animal. There are few neat “categories of analysis” when it comes down to bones and memories, but Chamoiseau’s old man slave/slave old man/man who had been a slave asks us to think about the categories we use and why we use them.

Slave Old Man is many things. Just a little more than 100 pages in length, it is a translation; a story of enslavement and escape; a discourse on the nature of French West Indies; the story of an old man, or an old slave, or both, but a man nonetheless; and a meditation on history. But we also cannot miss its moral significance as another reminder of the pernicious and lasting legacy of New World slavery and white supremacy in our own time. Thus, this new English translation contributes to and extends a vibrant and politically significant genre of neo-slave narratives, pioneered in the midst of the Civil Rights movement by Margaret Walker, and sustained by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and most recently Colson Whitehead, whose prize-winning Underground Railroad (2016) Manisha Sinha reviewed for Muster.[12] This novel may not be as easy to read or teach as Whitehead’s, but it serves an important purpose nonetheless.

 

[1] Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2016), 89, 132.

[2] Patrick Chamoiseau, Slave Old Man: A Novel, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: The New Press, 2018), 3.

[3] Ibid, 21, 26.

[4] Ibid, 32.

[5] Ibid, 42-43.

[6] Ibid, 45, 50, 51.

[7] Ibid, 57.

[8] Ibid, 63.

[9] Ibid, 86

[10] Ibid, 118.

[11] Timothy Williams, Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[12] Manisha Sinha, “The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Novel,” Muster (blog), Journal of the Civil War Era, November 29, 2016, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2016/11/underground-railroad-art-history-review-colson-whiteheads-novel/.

Timothy J. Williams

Timothy J. Williams is assistant professor of history in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon. His research focuses on the intellectual and cultural history of the nineteenth-century United States, especially the South in the Civil War era. He is the author of Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (2015) and editor (with Evan A. Kutzler) of Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863-1866 (2018).

One Reply to “Slavery and the Historical Imagination: A Review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.