DRUMS AT DUSK

Arna Bontemps
New York: The MacMillan Company, 1939
226

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2009

Arna Bontemps, close associate of Langston Hughes, was the co-author with Hughes on the wonderful children's novel POPO AND FIFINA

I have owned a lovely first edition 1939 of Bontemps novel, but never got around to reading it until this past week. Various commentators describe this novel as a novel of The Haitian Revolution. I think thatís not what itís about. It certainly isnít a novel about Toussaint Louverture, which others have claimed, although Toussaint is an important character in the novel. I suggest this is a novel which tries to bring alive for us what everyday life was really like in St. Domingue when the Haitian Revolution broke out.

The action of the novel is a 2-3 day period, most of which is set on Aug. 21-22, 1791 day/night and following morning when the slaves first rose up and the Haitian Revolution began.

Toussaint is the primary significant character in the novel who is also an historical person. And while the portrayal of Toussaint is generally quite accurate, I think the evidence suggests he didnít come off to others as seeming as "old" as Bontemps makes him the day before "he rises" to his responsibility. Otherwise, though, it's quite accurate.

And so are much of the rest of the historical details, especially the reputation of the Breda Plantation as one whose overseer, M. de la Libertas, was much more decent to his slaves than most overseers.

What is astonishingly brilliant in this novel is not the history of the beginning of the revolution, but the lived sense of the times which Bontemps masterfully creates. The actual characters, while names of folks who were around and active, are less historical in detail than in the "type" they represent. The genius of Bontemps is to be able to give us the sense of what it was like to live in those times, those customs and through that event.

The novel begins as a cockfight is about to take place at Breda plantation. We are given careful details of the preparations of cocks for the fight, the preparation of the plantation and womenís dresses, and finally we get the party and cockfights themselves.

There is lots of detail of the tense relations between white planters and free blacks who share a similar economic situation, but are on edge after the recent revolution in France and the execution of Chavannes and Oge in St. Domingue.

Some of the most vivid scenes are of everyday life Ė men sitting around in hotel bars, the arrival of a slave ship in OíKapís harbor, the wealthy women dressing in huge gowns for the festive cockfight wearing small bags of vanilla beans to lessen bad body odors from the sweat. We read convincing scenes of the attitudes of house slaves to the ďowners.Ē Most detailed of all, the sense of what white planters and all whites had to have felt when the northern plains rose in flames and the slaves rampaged on August 21st.

I felt I was there. Bontempsí powerful prose makes these scenes vividly real. And while we are set in an historical moment, it isnít the history of that event, nor the politics of it, or the cultural revolution afoot that seems to drive Bontemps. It is his attempt to give us a living felt sense of what life was like at that moment. I think he succeeds marvelously.

There are many historical novels of the Haitian Revolution. I think the trilogy by Madison Smartt Bell is the best of them.

See my comment on these volumes at:

All Souls Rising

Master of the Crossroads

The Stone the Builder Refused

Some other historical novels have become fairly well known, especially:

Just to name a few.

However, while Bontempsí book Drums at Dusk is not a full history of the Revolution it is still a very enriching book. I would recommend it highly to all.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu