World Literature

Jacques Roumain

 

BORN: 1907, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

DIED: 1944, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

NATIONALITY: Haitian

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Masters of the Dew (1944)

Ebony Wood (1945)

 

 

Jacques Roumain. Roumain, Jacques, photograph.

 

Overview

Jacques (Jean Baptiste) Roumain was a leader of a group of young Haitian intellectuals who, during the late 1920s and the 1930s, sought Haitian autonomy and an end to the American military occupation of Haiti. His writings support his belief in ‘‘art for people’s sake’’ and in negritude—a defense of black culture and an exploration of the ‘‘black perspective’’ of the world. He is best known for the militant, racially conscious poetry of Ebony Wood and the coalescence of Marxist theory and artistic expression in the novel Masters of the Dew.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Introspective and Melancholy Youth. Roumain was the oldest of eleven children of a landowner, and the grandson of former Haitian president Tancrede Auguste. A member of the upper-middle class, he attended school in Port-au-Prince and in 1921 was sent to Grunau, Switzerland, to complete secondary school. There he read works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Charles Darwin, and Heinrich Heine and studied the art and philosophy of the Near East. An introspective and sometimes melancholy student, he wrote poetry but also participated in athletic activities, observing that sports satisfied something of the ‘‘excess of life which I have.’’ From Grunau he went to Zurich and prepared for advanced studies in engineering, but somewhat abruptly he decided to study agronomy in Spain to prepare himself to develop his grandfather’s land in Haiti. By 1927, mounting Haitian opposition to American occupation lured Roumain home to join activists fighting for Haitian nationalism.

Politics, Literature, and Prison. In 1927 Roumain helped found the Haitian reviews La trouee and La revue indigene with the goal of educating Haitian youth about politics and culture. La trouee proposed to confront national issues, but Roumain found its literary standards weak and its expression of political ideas to run counter to its stated orientation, so he resigned by the journal’s second issue. La revue indigene was more successful: It published poetry and fiction by Roumain and other Haitians as well as French and Latin American literature in translation. Roumain also contributed to the leftist newspaper Le petit impartial, published by George Petit, who, with Roumain, helped unite divergent social levels of Haitian youth. After an article highly critical of the French clergy appeared in Le petit impartial, Roumain and Petit were arrested and held for seven months.

Release from Prison and Escape to Belgium. A series of strikes and civil disorders in Haiti during 1929 and 1930 led the U.S. government to appoint a commission to arrange a peaceful transition to a new government. Recognized as a nationalist leader, Roumain was among a group of opposition representatives who met with the commission and chose Eugene Roy as the new provisional president of Haiti in 1930. Roy appointed Roumain head of the Department of the Interior, a position he resigned within a few months to campaign for Stenio Vincent, who won the first presidential election in late 1930 and reappointed Roumain to his former post.

During this period Roumain published frequently, and these works evidence Roumain’s strong sense of the division between the mixed-race Haitian middle class into which he was born and the black masses with whom he sympathized and identified. His disenchantment with the nationalist government, which had effected no appreciable change in the economic and social conditions of the peasants, reinforced his growing attraction to Marxism. He met with American Communist Party officials in the United States; this, along with his refusal to accept another government post, brought Roumain under government suspicion, leading to surveillance of his movements and inspection of his mail and packages.

Late in 1932 a letter by Roumain detailing a proposed strike by Haitian laborers against the American Sugar Company was confiscated by government officials. Roumain’s subsequent imprisonment was given wide press coverage, inspiring strongly negative sentiment toward him and others who promoted communist ideology. Upon his release, Roumain declared his allegiance to communism and founded the Haitian Communist Party. In 1934 he was arrested on grounds that he had participated in an antigovernment communist conspiracy; a military tribunal sentenced him to three years in prison. Communism was outlawed in Haiti in 1936, and after his release from prison Roumain fled with his wife and son to Belgium.

Asylum Abroad. In Belgium Roumain studied pre-Columbian art and history; after moving to Paris in 1937, he studied ethnology and related subjects. While in Paris he associated with such antifascist journalists and intellectuals as Andre Gide, Romain Rolland, and Louis Aragon and wrote articles and fiction for European journals. In 1939 Roumain left Paris for the United States. He began graduate courses in anthropology at Columbia University but soon left for Cuba at the invitation of the communist poet and journalist Nicolas Guillen. After working for a short time as a journalist in Cuba, he returned home to Haiti, which was now under a new government that had offered amnesty to political exiles. In 1943, the new president made Roumain charge d’affaires to Mexico, a job that gave him the financial support and opportunity to complete his two major works, the poetry collection Ebony Wood and the novel Masters of the Dew.

Roumain died at the age of thirty-seven in 1944 of an apparent heart attack.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Roumain's famous contemporaries include:

Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968): Italian poet who, in 1959, won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Alan Paton (1903-1988): South African author and political activist whose best-known work is Cry, the Beloved Country.

Anne Frank (1929-1945): German-born Jewish girl who died during the Holocaust in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but whose posthumously published diary became one of the best-known personal accounts of World War II.

Richard Nixon (1913-1994): Thirty-seventh president of the United States of America who resigned from office in 1974 to avoid impeachment.

Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980): Cuban novelist and one of the first practioners of the ''magical realist'' style of Latin American literature.

 

Works in Literary Context

Negritude. Negritude was an artistic and political movement established in the 1930s that attempted to identify a unified black identity and culture in opposition to French colonial control. Roumain was a major participant in the movement. Other key figures included Senegal’s Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire of Martinique.

In his revolutionary and militant poetry, Roumain became almost obsessed with linking nationalism and negritude to Creole patois and rhythms and images based on African music and dance. Roumain sought to evoke Haitian idioms in his later poetry as well, looking to other black poets, such as America’s Langston Hughes, for ways to transform indigenous musical forms and folk material into verse.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Roumain used Haitian music to help inform his work and explain black Haitiain culture. Other works that combine music and literature to evoke a culture include:

The Souls of Black Folks (1903), a collection of fiction and nonfiction by W. E. B. DuBois. This groundbreaking sociological work by civil rights leader DuBois features bars of African American hymns and other music throughout, and an unprecedented, in-depth discussion of spirituals.

Jazz (1992), a novel by Toni Morrison. Morrison translates several jazz conventions, including the improvised solo, into literary form in this novel set in 1920s Harlem.

Coming through Slaughter (1976), a novel by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje's novel covers the last years of the life of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Ondaatje uses a style and organization reminiscent of early New Orleans jazz.

 

Works in Critical Context

Roumain is primarily remembered and praised for introducing to literature a particularly Haitian voice and for invoking the rhythms of Haitian culture and language effectively. However, given Roumain’s intense political views and his frequent brushes with the law because of those views, it is no wonder that his work is imbued with politics and, indeed, has been criticized for being a mere vehicle for Roumain’s ideals. Answering critics who consider Roumain’s works nothing more than ideological tracts, J. Michael Dash stated:

[Roumain’s] concern with the individual will and the quest for spiritual fulfillment show the extent to which he was very much a Romantic individualist rather than an ideologue whose main interest was conformity to Marxist ideals. It was really his strong moral conscience that drove him to the secular creed of Marxism.... Ultimately Roumain emerges as a modern artist concerned with the fate of the creative imagination in a world of broken continuities.

Masters of the Dew. Dash remarked that during the last four years of Roumain’s life the writer abandoned ‘‘the early iconoclasm’’ and pronouncements for ‘‘idealistic revolt,’’ becoming ‘‘more capable of compromise.’’ Masters of the Dew—considered by many the best work of fiction to come out of Haiti—was written during that time; unlike earlier Roumain protagonists incapable of action, its hero, Manuel, rallies feuding villagers to work together and irrigate their drought-stricken land. Although eventually killed by a jealous rival, the leader refuses to name the murderer as he dies, safeguarding the peasants’ fledgling unity. Touching on a number of themes important to Roumain—nationalism, communism, romantic love, effective leadership, agricultural reform, and true friendship—Masters of the Dew is admired for its masterful synthesis of indigenous Haitian language, music, and folklore. ‘‘The novel is a beautiful, exact and tender rendering of Haitian life, of the African heritage, of the simple, impulsive, gravely formal folk, of the poetry and homely bite of their speech, of Congo dances, tropical luxuriance, the love of a land and its people,’’ stated B. D. Wolfe in a critique for the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Review.

While manifestly a communist novel (‘‘You have the struggle against the bourgeoisie, the summons of the exploited to class solidarity, the martyr who dies for the cause,’’ enumerated Edmund Wilson), Masters of the Dew transcends its political parameters. Writing in L’Esprit createur, Beverly Ormerod remarked that ‘‘strong elements of myth and ritual... underpin the novel. ... Earth and coumbite, dew and water, dust and drought are the recurrent symbols through which the hero’s adventure is invested with a legendary quality.’’ Allusions to Manuel as a Christ-figure are frequent, as are references to pagan vegetation gods Tammuz, Attis, and Adonis. Roumain scholar Jacques-Stephen Alexis called such writing ‘‘symbolic realism.’’ ‘‘In theme and outline Masters of the Dew is a fairly conventional proletarian novel; in style, imagination, observed detail it is a work of unusual freshness and beauty,’’ judged R. G. Davis in the New York Times. Calling the work ‘‘charming, vivid, and original,’’ a New Yorker critic concurred that it is ‘‘a routine, almost commonplace story... but one that is so freshly told and has so highly colored a background that it achieves the glowing effect of a tropical blossom.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Some have criticized Roumain, saying that his writings are merely vessels for his ideals and have no merit as works of art. Read Ebony Wood. Do you agree or disagree with the criticism Roumain has received? Are Roumain’s beliefs clear after reading the work? Cite examples from the text to support your response.

2. In what ways does Roumain utilize African music and dance in his text Ebony Wood? How does this use of African music and dance affect your reaction to the collection? In your response, make sure to mention specific passages to help explain your thinking.

3. Masters of the Dew attempts to capture Haitian culture and language. The way people speak—the rhythms of their language and the actual vocabulary they use—say a lot about them, and it is difficult to represent dialects effectively in writing. To understand how dialect works, in a short essay, compare how you would describe a date with your boyfriend or girlfriend to a friend through a text message and how you would say the same thing to your mother or grandmother. In your essay, compare the different meanings conveyed in the different ways you say the ‘‘same’’ thing.

4. In Masters of the Dew, Manuel is sometimes described as being a Christlike figure. In what ways does Roumain complicate this understanding of Manuel? In what ways does the text support this interpretation? Reference specific examples to support your response.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Cobb, Martha. Harlem, Haiti, and Havana: A Comparative Critical Study of Langston Hughes, Jacques Roumain, Nicolas Guillen. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1979.

Cook, Mercer, ed. An Introduction to Haiti. Washington, D.C.: Pan American Union, 1951.

Coulthard, George Robert. Race and Colour in Caribbean Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Dash, J. Michael. Literature and Ideology in Haiti, 1915-1961. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981.

Fisher, Dexter, and Robert B. Stepto, eds. Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979.

Fowler, Carolyn. A Knot in the Thread: The Life and Work of Jacques Roumain. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980.

Garret, Naomi M., ed. Anthologie negro-africaine. Verviers, Belgium: Gerard, 1967.

Levilain, Guy. Cultural Identity, Negritude, and Decolonization: The Haitian Situation in the Light of the Socialist Humanism of Jacques Roumain and Rene Depestre. New York: American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1978.

Wilson, Edmund. Red, Black, Blond, and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations, Zuni, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.