“Theresa, A Haytian Tale” and the “Tropical Sublime”

Thirteen years before Victor Sejour’s “The Mulatto” (1841), S’s serialized story “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” (1828) appeared in the Freedom’s Journal between January 18 and February 15, 1828. Now, scholars believe that S’s  story is the first short story by an African American author; however, there may be something else tucked away in a library, archive, or collection somewhere in the world. Whether or not “Theresa” is the first African American short story, while important, there are other aspects that make the story a text that should be studied.

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To begin with, the first African American newspaper in the United States published “Theresa,” why? From the very beginning of the paper’s existence, the editors, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, put forth that the Freedom’s Journal would provide its audience with literature that would instruct and uplift the race. In “To Our Patrons,” Russwurm and Cornish states, “[W]e shall consider it part of of our duty to recommend to our young readers, such authors as will not only enlarge their stock of useful knowledge, but such as will also serve to stimulate them to higher attainments of science” (136). They accomplish this task by providing literature, in its broadest sense of the nineteenth century term, for its readers. Amongst this literature, the editors included poems by Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton along with fiction in the form of “Theresa” and other stories. Through the inclusion of these texts, Russwurm and Cornish sought to instill taste within their readers. I discuss this topic elsewhere if you are interested in exploring it further.

Another reason why “Theresa,” a story about the Haitian Revolution, shows up in Freedom’s Journal has to do with the fact that Haiti existed as a proposed country for emigration for free blacks and Russwurm and Cornish dedicate numerous articles to “the establishment of the republic of Hayti [sic] after years of sanguinary warfare; [and] its subsequent progress in all arts of civilization” (138). Frances Smith Foster, in “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Theresa?” (2005),  writes about this aspect of “Theresa appearing in the newspaper alongside histories of Haiti and other writings that praise the island nation as an example for blacks in the United States.

Today, though, I want to focus on one specific aspect of “Theresa” that draws, partly, on John Lowe’s discussion of the “tropical sublime” in Calypso Magnolia (2016). According to Lowe, the “tropical sublime” involves artists who “devote much attention to limning tropical landscapes and the effect these settings have on their characters, some of whom have been shaped by these surroundings since birth, while others, thrust into these exotic realms by chance, are irrevocably changed” (15). In “Theresa,” the three female protagonists-Theresa, Amanda, and Madame Paulina-encounter the “tropical sublime” as they escape St. Nicolas and the encroachment of the French army.

During their escape, the trio hide beside the road as French soldiers approach. The narrator describes the scene with a mixture of fear and beauty. Lowe notes that “[t]he sublime is never far from violence,” and in this scene, not much distance exists between the beauty and the violence of the landscape (34).

Every tree kissed by the zephyrs, that ruffled its leaves, was an army approaching, and in the trunk every decored [sic] mahogany, was seen a Frenchman in ambush-not less alarming to the fugitives, were the ripe fruit that frequently fell to earth. Then having turned into a by-path, Paulina felt herself more secure; and with a soul oppressed with mingled grief and joy, she with maternal affection embraced her daughters, and observed them, that however just may be the cause which induces us to practice duplicity, or the laudable object which gives birth to hypocrisy. (154)

Paulina and her daughters see and hear the French waiting in ambush amongst the lush landscape of Haiti. Even though the above scene does not intricately describe the landscape, it provides readers with a heightened view of the Haiti in its reference to the ways that the winds “kissed” the trees and the “ripe fruit” fell to the ground. These descriptors paint an image of beauty and plenty. Elsewhere, when the sun begins to set and Theresa, with a military escort, returns to her mother and sister, “[t]he orange and citrus groves, and all the rich enameled luxuriance of torrid luxuries, now began to wear a somber aspect” (157). The landscape takes on an image of fading beauty that sees nature losing its luster.

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On Their Way-Adrien Seide

While “Theresa” has a happy ending, the images of the island that S presents for readers carry with them beauty and fear, and knowing the history of Haiti, especially the way that countries excluded the nation from trade and avenues for prosperity after the revolution, the  underlying view of the landscape as something beautiful yet fading presents an interesting way to view “Theresa.” This view runs counter to the ways that the articles in Freedom’s Journal present Haiti, as a prosperous and thriving independent nation. “Theresa” does have these aspects because the focus is on the revolution and Toussaint L’Overture; however, underlying this promise and hope is the continued view of Haiti’s inhabitants as inferior to people of European descent.

Some of the above topics would require more space to explore. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Lowe, John Wharton. Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Russwurm, John. The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799-1851. Ed. Winston James. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

S. “Theresa, a Haytien Tale.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Vol 1. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. And Valerie A. Smith. 2nd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. 152-159.

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