Haitian writer and activist Jacques Roumain (1907-44) straddled, and fused, the worlds of politics and art during his relatively short life.
The grandson of a former president, he was raised in comfort and educated abroad, including in Switzerland, Spain (where he developed an interest in bullfighting), Germany and France.
But his youth was also shaped by Haiti’s subjugation during its long occupation by the United States (1915-34).
This crisis, along with his concerns about race and threats to Haiti’s traditional culture, led Roumain to embrace communism as well as a political and culture movement called Negritude. As one writer explained:
“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.”
The late NYU scholar J. Michael Dash observed that Roumain’s concern “with the individual will and the quest for spiritual fulfillment” made him much more of a “Romantic individualist” than political ideologue. “It was really his strong moral conscience that drove him to the secular creed of Marxism, “Dash wrote, while concluding, “Ultimately Roumain emerges as a modern artist concerned with the fate of the creative imagination in a world of broken continuities.”
This fusion of politics, culture, history and identity informs Roumain’s best-known work, the novel “Masters of the Dew” (1944), as suggested by this passage:
What are we? Since that's your question, I'm going to answer you. We're this country, and it wouldn't be a thing without us, nothing at all. Who does the planting? Who does the watering? Who does the harvesting? Coffee, cotton, rice, sugar cane, caco, corn, bananas, vegetables, and all the fruits, who's going to grow them if we don't? Yet with all that, we're poor, that's true. We're out of luck, that's true. We're miserable, that's true. But do you know why, brother? Because of our ignorance. We don't know yet what a force we are, what a single force - all the peasants, all the Negroes of the plain and hill, all united. Someday, when we get wise to that, we'll rise up from one end of the country to the other. Then we'll call a General Assembly of the Masters of the Dew, a great big coumbite of farmers and we'll clear out poverty and plant a new life.
We were delighted when the esteemed Haitian-American writer and Top Ten contributor Edwidge Danticat offered to write this splendid appreciation of Roumain’s masterpiece. Among other things, her piece reminds us that while critics can analyze works to identify their origins and ideas, they can never fully convey the true magic of literature: the singular effect each story has on each reader.
Appreciation of Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew by Edwidge Danticat
This novel charmed Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook so much that when they visited Haiti in the 1940s they decided to translate it. Theirs remains the only English translation. This is the plot: A Haitian young man goes to Cuba to cut sugarcane in the 1930s. When he returns to his village in rural Haiti, he finds that a drought has ravaged the entire area and a Romeo and Juliet–type feud between the two most powerful families stands in the community’s way of finding a solution.
Like Romeo, the young man, Manuel, falls in love with the stunning daughter of the family that despises his and a battle ensues that results in tragedy, with some measure of hope. (To say much more would be giving away too much of the plot of this slim volume.) The book has often been called a peasant novel, but it is also an environmental novel, as well as a love story.
I read this book when I was ten years old; it was the first novel in which I recognized people I knew living in circumstances similar to my life and my world. It was also the first time that I realized books could not only help us escape but hold a mirror to our lives, to help us examine a problem and ponder—along with the characters—a possible solution. It was my first engagée or socially engaged novel, one that showed me that the novel could have many roles, that fiction could be used for different purposes without losing its artistic merit. It made me want to write the types of books that could inform and entertain as well as help others live, through a powerful narrative, a heartbreaking, painful, and even redemptive experience.