The Greatest Ever?

Baltimore novelist writes a biography of the black general who defeated the European powers to make Haiti the only successful slave revolt in history

Interview: -- Madison Smartt Bell

March 11, 2007|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Reporter

In his new biography of Toussaint Louverture, Baltimore novelist Madison Smartt Bell says the Haitian revolutionary can "fairly be called the highest-achieving African-American hero of all time."

Toussaint led the "only successful slave revolution in recorded history," he says, and founded "the only independent black state in the Western Hemisphere ever to be created by former black slaves."

Bell is talking in a third-floor workroom beneath the roof of his Cedarcroft home. He's written many of his books here.

Among his more than a dozen novels, Bell has based a trilogy on Haiti with Toussaint as a leading character. The three novels are All Souls Rising (1983), a National Book Award finalist; Master of the Crossroads (2000) and The Stone the Builder Refused.

The new biography, called simply Toussaint Louverture, has powerful appeal, even if you've never been closer to the Caribbean than Dundalk. It has been a long time coming.

Bell first proposed Toussaint for the Penguin Lives series, compact biographies by literary writers, edited by James Atlas, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker and various literary journals.

"They said, `No, he's too obscure'," Bell recalls. "And that annoyed me."

One could see how that might have irritated this writer. He's written a lot about Haiti and the leaders of the revolution that made that country.

"I said, `OK, in that case I'd like to do Malcolm X.' Which I would have done if they'd agreed. I always wanted to do a book about Malcolm."

That book didn't happen and Bell dropped the Toussaint idea. Ten or a dozen years went by and he was closing in on completing The Stone the Builder Refused, the third volume of his trilogy.

"Atlas, at that point, had started another series called Discoveries, a different kind of series. He and his partners came and asked me if I wanted to do a biography of this guy, Antoine Lavoisier.

"At first I thought it kind of weird, but they had a lot of money. It paid well."

Lavoisier, a French nobleman, was the "father of modern chemistry." He co-discovered and named oxygen, introduced the metric system and invented the first periodic table. He was beheaded as a "tax farmer," a kind of tax collector that was often considered corrupt, with 27 others, early in May 1794, during the French Revolution.

"I knew when I got finished writing the third one of those novels I'd probably get depressed and this would give me something to do," Bell says.

So he wrote Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution.

"He's not somebody who inspires me," Bell confesses.

"Maybe even before I started writing I remembered I wanted to do a short biography of Toussaint Louverture," Bell says. "And in doing this book on Lavoisier I would teach myself how to do it. That would be the practice run."

Bell says he went to his publisher, Pantheon, and told editors there that he ought to do a book on Toussaint, similar to his Lavoisier book.

"It should be short, sweet, accessible," he says he told the publisher. "The kind of thing that could be used in courses to introduce high school and college students to the greatest African-American hero of all time.

"Which I believe he was," he says.

Bell wrote a first draft of Louverture in a hurry in the fall of 2004 because he was going to France. He thinks the book will reach a much different audience than his novels.

"That was the goal," Bell says. "I started out with just the idea of a really brief life: Toussaint made simple. But then I ended up what is probably for the moment the definitive biography in English. In part because there hasn't been one since the Forties. ... They're dated.

"There are a couple of good ones," Bell says, generously. "The Black Jacobins, by C. L. R. James, is good. Some of the facts are wrong. It was written in the Thirties."

James, born in Trinidad in 1901, also wrote a play, Toussaint L'Ouverture, produced in 1936 in London, with Paul Robeson in the title role. A dedicated Marxist, James also wrote brilliantly on the British game cricket. He died in May 1989, in his one-bedroom flat in Brixton, London.

Bell wrote an afterword to The Black Jacobins for an Italian publisher.

"I hadn't used it in writing my Toussaint Louverture at all," he says. "I had just kind of gone beyond it, I felt.

"I pulled it down and I was surprised at how good it really still is. There are some factual matters that people have learned since that he just didn't know, basically.

"Marxism wears poorly," Bell remarks. "But still it's one of the best books about the whole thing there is."

He looks for a book by another author: "Edwige Danticat. She's from Haiti. She did one about a town in Haiti."

Bell acknowledges that he has been challenged when suggesting Toussaint's preeminence as a black leader. He says he got an argument on that point a few weeks ago during a visit to promote his book in Providence, R. I.

"Whoa, what about Martin Luther King?" Bell was asked.

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