Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 31. Charles Testut; Alfred Mercier

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXI. Non-English Writings I

§ 31. Charles Testut; Alfred Mercier

Charles Testut, one of the most prolific of writers, author of Portraits Littéraires de la Nouvelle-Orléans, and of several volumes of poems, and editor-in-chief of Les Veillées Louisianaises, wrote three historical novels, Saint-Denis, Calisto, and Le Vieux Salomon. They were produced to fill space in his magazines; they are long, loosely composed, and often forced in language and sentiment. Yet they are eloquent, and rich in Louisiana lore. Whole pages are borrowed from Gayarré in Calisto a long digression begins with the words “Comme le disait Charles Gayarré.” Saint-Denis (1845) recounts the adventures of the Chevalier Juchereau de Saint-Denis in New Mexico, whither he has been sent by Governor Cadillac of Louisiana to open up new channels of trade, and where he falls in love with Angela, the governor’s daughter, and fights a duel for her. Calisto (1849) is an extraordinary tale. The scene is laid at Carrolton, now a part of New Orleans. Sophie de Wolfenbuttel, a German princess, is brutally treated by her husband Alexis, a Russian prince. He struck her one day, and believes he has killed her. She smuggles herself out of the palace and comes to Louisiana under the name of Calisto. She hears of the death of Alexis, and marries a young Frenchman, the Chevalier D’Olban. Returning to Paris with D’Olban and a daughter Caroline, she is recognized and forced to retire to the country, where her husband and daughter die, and where she ends her days in a convent. The novel contains, in addition to this train of events, notable descriptions of the huge Louisiana forests, and of a violent hurricane on the Mississippi. Testut’s third novel, Le Vieux Salomon (written 1858, not published until 1877), deals at great length with slavery in Louisiana, and is virtually a second Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with a second Simon Legree for its principal character. The other side of the picture was given in 1881, in Dr. Alfred Mercier’s Habitation St. Ybars, where the relation between master and slave is a happy one and the old Louisiana life is almost idyllic.

Alexandre Barde wrote Michel Peyroux ou l’Histoire des Pirates en Amérique in 1848. The story began serially in La Revue Louisianaise, but was never completed because the manuscript was lost by the printers. It is an account, as far as it goes, of the band of pirates who were led by the famous Lafitte. The novel begins well, and the loss of the manuscript must be considered a real misfortune; the French is excellent.

Le Soulier Rouge (1849), by D’Artlys, is an Indian story with a considerable historical basis. Governor Vaudreuil sends Aubry to negotiate with Soulier Rouge, who is chief of the Choctaws. Aubry’s guide through the Louisiana forests has a niece, whom Aubry marries. The negotiations are not successful, and Aubry kills Soulier Rouge, who had killed his father. Aubry appears in Gayarré’s history, from which D’Artlys borrowed. The story is only moderately long and is excellently written. The numerous descriptions of savage ceremonies make it an interesting document. D’Artlys had a nimble pen. He contributed regularly to La Violette, in the department called Revue de la Semaine. He retailed there the news from Europe, discussing the latest nothings with finesse and spirit. He was editor for a short time of La Presse des Deux-Mondes.

Between 1860 and 1870 no novels were published in Louisiana, because with the coming of the Civil War the popular magazines went out of existence. Thereafter novels in French were not numerous. Les Amours d’Hélène, by Jacques de Roquigny, and Rodolphe de Branchelièvre by Charles Lemaître, should at least be mentioned. The works of Dr. Alfred Mercier and Adrien Rouquette were more important. In addition to his Habitation de St. Ybars, Dr. Mercier, who spent a large portion of his life in Paris as lawyer, physician, and man of letters, wrote Hénoch Jédésias; Lidia, a charming Italian idyl; Le fou de Palerme (1873), a touching Italian love story; La Fille du Prêtre (1877), an attack against the celibacy of priests; and Johnelle (1892). Dr. Mercier handled the Creole patois skilfully, and was altogether highly successful in his fiction. Adrien Rouquette’s La Nouvelle Atala (1879), it is hardly necessary to say, is an echo of Chateaubriand. The author was a priest who lived among the Indians of Saint-Tammany parish, reading Ossian, Young’s Night Thoughts, various French books, and the Bible. Atala is a young girl who loves solitude and retires to the forests, where she has subtle spiritual adventures, and dies swooning. There are numerous mystical digressions in La Nouvelle Atala; Nature, as the guardian of Atala, is handled with all the superstitious reverence of Chateaubriand himself, and often with genuine eloquence.