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Victor Séjour

(1817—1874)


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(1817 –1874), dramatist, poet, novelist, and recipient of the French Legion of Honor. The most distinguished African American writer of nineteenth-century Louisiana, Victor Séjour's lengthy career as a successful dramatist in Paris makes him a unique figure, important to both the history of African American writing and the history of French theater in the Second Empire (1851 –1870).

Juan Victor Séjour Marcouet Ferrand was born a free Creole of color in New Orleans, son of prosperous merchant Juan Francois Louis Séjour Marcou, a free mulatto from Santo Domingo, and Eloisa Phillippe Ferrand, a free octoroon born in New Orleans. After secondary education under black writer and journalist Michel Séligny at New Orleans's Sainte-Barbe Academy, Séjour departed for Paris, like many other elite Creoles, to pursue further education and a career unencumbered by the racial constraints of American society.

In Paris Séjour entered literary circles where he associated with influential figures Emile Augier, Alexandre Dumas père, and abolitionist editor Cyrille Bisette (like Séjour, Dumas and Bisette were men of color). His first publication, a short story entitled “Lemulâtre” (“The mulatto”), in which a slave murders his master only to discover he has killed his father, appeared in 1837 in Bisette's journal, La revue des colonies. References to slavery and American racial dilemmas are overt in this first publication, one of the earliest African American fictionalizations of slavery, but thereafter occur only in allusions and metaphors such as the persecution of Jews (Diégarias, 1844; La tireuse de cartes, 1860) and class-based separatism in France (Le martyre du coeur, 1858). Literary success came in 1841 with Le retour de Napoléon, a heroic ode celebrating the return of Napoleon's remains to Paris. Le retour de Napoléon was reprinted in the United States in 1845 by editor Armand Lanusse as part of Les Cenelles, the first anthology of poetry by African Americans.

Séjour's run of twenty-five years as a leading figure in Parisian theater, during which he brought over twenty plays to the stage, was extraordinary by any standards. His first plays, Diégarias (1844) and La chute de Séjan (The Fall of Sejanus, 1849), historical verse dramas in the romantic style of Victor Hugo, garnered critical praise. Wide popularity followed during the 1850s as he turned to prose melodramas, adventures, and comedies. During these years he lived well, brought his parents to France, and fathered three children with three mothers outside marriage. His success, however, was linked to precisely the kind of lavishly staged romantic melodrama that fell out of favor in the 1860s, and his personal fortunes declined with the genre's waning popularity.

Struggling in his last years with illness and a changing literary marketplace, further disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune (1870 –1871), Séjour also produced a serialized novel, Le compte de Haag (The Count of Haag, 1872), the story of a revolutionary in France, left unfinished because of declining health. Séjour was hospitalized for tuberculosis in 1873 and died in September 1874.

Overall, Séjour's career and significance are closely tied to the Second Empire's culture and values. The world of his writing is that of Bonapartism, emphasizing nationalism, liberalism, the family, and religious life, attempting to steer a middle path between conservative monarchists and radical republicans. Nevertheless, as an African American his racially driven alienation from U.S. culture and career-long concern with ethnic and class conflict are noteworthy, and constitute a precedent for African American cultural expatriates of later periods.

From The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literature.


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