I taught “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” (1787) toward the end of a survey course on Early American literature for sophomore and junior English majors. This course is one of seven options that students can choose from to fulfill a requirement for the major (the literature before 1830 requirement). To entice students to choose Early American literature (over, for instance, Romantic literature), I designed the course to focus on the themes of “Sex and Sin in Early American Literature.” “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” fit into the course particularly well, given its focus on seduction, charisma, and revolutionary violence.
I organized the syllabus chronologically, so “Account”—published in the US in the 1790s—fell between part one of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. This placement was serendipitous, as Makandal bridged the transition from Franklin’s Enlightenment dream of rationalized human perfectibility to Brown’s Gothic nightmare of deception and derangement. After reading “Account,” students were more aware of the dark side of Franklin’s vision and primed to analyze the epistemological underpinnings of Brown’s novel. Rather than simply dwelling on Carwin and Clara’s creepy psychosexual dynamics (as previous classes have focused on), students connected the personal relationships in the novel to larger ideas about empiricism, belief, and democracy. Having a third example to triangulate with Franklin and Brown facilitated a more nuanced discussion about the dangers of charisma and the limits of empiricism in the late-18th-century US. We compared Franklin’s emphasis on reputation (e.g. when Franklin carries his wares through the streets in a wheelbarrow to demonstrate that he “was not above my business”) to Makandal’s use of a fetish to mystify his own powers. Though Makandal’s reputation rests on belief in and fear of his “supernatural virtues” rather than his character as a frugal and industrious tradesman, the strategies the two men use are similar in their recognition of the importance of public perception and self-promotion.
Moreover, Franklin, Makandal, and Carwin all demonstrate the power and danger of charisma in a society in which public opinion rather than divine judgment underwrites authority. Our conversation about charisma led us to consider the ways in which violence can be framed as either personal animus or systemic rebellion. Students pointed to specific language in “Account” that reduced Makandal’s motive to jealousy or lust, as well as moments that implied a broader political purpose, such as his conspirators’ admission that “Makandal’s intention was to destroy privately the greater part of the planters, or to ruin them, by poisoning all their slaves who appeared to be attached to them; and lastly to exterminate the whole race of white men by a general massacre which would render him the deliverer and sovereign of the whole island” (10). Students imagined how anti-slavery readers might recast the story to highlight revolutionary principles rather than individual desires. These observations enabled us to locate our discussion of the US revolution in terms of the Haitian revolution and the larger Age of Revolution rather than isolating the US as exceptional.
When we discussed Wieland, students returned to “Account” to think through “M[onsieur] de C…”’s depiction of Makandal as a religious fanatic and compare Makandal to the Wielands (elder and younger). Students were particularly interested in the non-Christian religious practices described in “Account,” so when I teach the class again I plan to assign one of the recommended readings on obeah (Toni Wall Jaudon, Kelly Wisecup, and Christopher Iannini) alongside the narrative. Other parallels among the three texts that students explored included the emphasis on the hazards of pride and the importance of education and literacy, as “Account” begins with a paragraph outlining Makandal’s solid education and ability to read and write Arabic.
The narrative also resonated with semester-long concerns about fluid publication histories in Early American literature. As Duncan Faherty, Ed White, and Toni Wall Jaudon eloquently demonstrate in the headnote to the text, “Account” was reprinted and modified in significant ways from its first publication in 1787 to its late US printings in 1823 and 1846. We compared the aspect of “Account” to earlier texts we had read by John Smith, William Byrd, and Franklin, which also appeared in various editions aimed at distinct audiences. For example, students drew on “Account”’s headnote to consider the ways in which politics and racial prejudice influenced the shaping of the narrative in various venues, as we had discussed in relation to William Byrd’s History and Secret History.
Including “Account” in the course provided an opportunity to discuss the ways in which literary studies can move beyond the classroom. After students had read “Account,” I explained the “Just Teach One” project to them and showed them the website. This led to a conversation about canon formation and questions of race and representation in the texts we study. Though many of my colleagues and I raise these issues in most of the English courses we teach, foregrounding the editorial and scholarly labor involved in producing a teachable version of a noncanonical text (including notes and a contextual introduction) helped students to see a concrete example of how difficult it can be to introduce new texts into the classroom and thus why syllabi often remain focused on the same set of texts. Students also reported that reading “Account” and discussing the Just Teach One project expanded their understanding of what English professors do.
My students particularly wanted me to mention that they were glad I didn’t tell them anything about the text before they read it; they enjoyed contending with the (to them) unfamiliar world of Saint-Domingue, and reading the narrative inspired many of them to research the history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on their own. They agreed that “Account” was an excellent addition to the syllabus and expanded our conception of Early American literature. We are all deeply grateful to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for the opportunity to participate in “Just Teach One” and for their work editing the narrative.