Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book Review: "Toussaint Louverture"

English professor and novelist Madison Smartt Bell's new book, Toussaint Louverture (Pantheon, 2007) is at once a biography of the Haitian Revolution's main leader and at the same time a remarkably useful overall history of that conflict. Louverture makes for an incredibly difficult subject given the paucity of objective sources on his life and legacy, but Bell has handled that dilemma carefully and well.

As Bell notes in his afterword, most portrayals of Louverture show "an extreme Toussaint: either a vicious, duplicitous, Machiavellian figure ... or a military and political genius, autodidact, and self-made man, a wise and good humanitarian who not only led his people to freedom but also envisioned and briefly created a society based on racial harmony, at least two hundred years ahead of its time." What Bell has - I suspect consciously - attempted to do here is tack toward the middle, showing Toussaint (to the extent possible) in his own context.

We don't get a great deal here about the motivations of the man, and to his great credit Bell has refrained from attempting to psycho-analyze his subject. Where there are speculations - and there are some, of necessity - they're carefully noted. In the absence of a huge amount of personal detail, Bell provides a fascinating and detailed account of the incredibly complicated politics of Saint Domingue during the years of revolutionary conflict. The balance of power seemed to be constantly shifting (both between and amongst the groups within the colony and with the various European powers), and Bell has managed to recreate the essence of that without bogging the book down. I do wish that he'd included more about the relationship with the fledging United States, including the support offered by the Adams administration during the early years of the rebellion.

Louverture was and remains an impossible figure to pin down. Was he in fact out to secure an independent St. Domingue? If so, why not declare it (he insisted throughout that he remained loyal to France)? Why did he fall into the trap that led to his arrest and deportation? These questions, unfortunately, will probably never be answered. But Bell's book provides a fresh examination of these and other issues, and is an important introduction to its subject. Recommended.

Other recent reviews (I've decided that for some books I'll include links to other recent reviews, which - I feel obligated to note - I make a point not to read until after I've written my own): "The Elusive Louverture" by James Smethurst (Boston Globe, 2/25); "The Moses of Haiti" by Theola Labbe (Washington Post, 2/25).

No comments: