Books Unbound revisits “The Mulatto,” a short story that first appeared in 1837 in an anti-slavery magazine published by free people of color in France. Its author was the 19-year-old Victor Séjour, who had come as a student to Paris from New Orleans. Séjour was a French-speaking person of color whose baptismal record identifies him as a free quadroon. His father had come to New Orleans among refugees of the Haitian Revolution. “The Mulatto” is set in Haiti, and is thought to be the first short story published by an American of African descent.
It’s a frank melodrama, a mode of extreme passion and good-and-evil morality that permeated 19th-century fiction and drama. An oedipal tragic secret lies at the heart of a story fueled by rape, injustice, revenge and murder. Gothic elements of horror speak to the violence done to family within the institution of slavery. Séjour went on to have a highly successful career as a dramatist, with twenty of his plays in a variety of genres produced at the Comédie Française.
“The Mulatto” was originally part of a Books Unbound series on race in literature that was broadcast in early 2015. Indiana University associate professor Maisha Wester discusses the racial implications of gothic melodrama.
Our reader is Lauren Robert. Sarah Torbeck hosts, with Jack Hanek as the announcer. Special music comes from the Twelve Grand Études of Frédéric Chopin, which were published the same year as “The Mulatto”, performed by Martha Goldstein courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The episode was produced and written by Cynthia Wolfe, with the interview produced by Doug Storm. Special thanks to Community Access Television Services for recording this week’s reading.
Executive producer: Joe Crawford
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes