Alexis, Jacques Stéphen (1922–1961)

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Alexis, Jacques Stéphen (1922–1961)

Jacques Stéphen Alexis (b. 22 April 1922; d. April 1961), Haitian novelist, story writer, essayist, and physician. Son of historian, novelist, playwright, and diplomat Stéphen Alexis, Jacques Stéphen was born in Gonaïves during the American occupation of Haiti. Successor to the Marxist nationalism of Jacques Roumain, he eventually emerged to become the compelling exponent of his own lyrically infused, proletarian-identified vision of a uniquely Haitian "marvelous realism." Initially educated at the College Stanislas in Paris and the Institution Saint-Louis de Gonzague in Port-au-Prince, Alexis took an early, active part in Haitian avant-garde cultural and political life. A member of the Communist Party at sixteen, he later also wrote regularly, as Jacques la Colère, for the radical journal La Ruche. With René Depestre and other members of its editorial staff, he directly contributed to the success of the Revolution of 1946, which brought down the government of Élie Lescot. While pursuing his medical studies in Paris, Alexis moved in radical, left-wing, surrealist, existentialist, and Antillean négritude circles. Thereafter, he traveled through Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and China. Returning to Haiti in 1954, Alexis published Compère général soleil (1955), the novel that established his reputation as one of his country's most important writers of fiction. Les Arbres musiciens (1957), L'espace d'un cillement (1959), and Romancero aux étoiles (1960), a collection of short stories, followed in quick succession to confirm that original assessment.

Representing a formal and thematic convergence between literary realism, Afro-Antillean cultural nationalism, Marxist anticolonialism, and a universalizing art that "is indissolubly linked to the myth, the symbol, the stylized, the heraldic, even the hieratic," Alexis's fiction strives for "a new balance … born of singularity and antithesis" (J. S. Alexis, "Of the Marvelous Realism of the Haitians," Présence Africaine [English edition], nos. 8-10 [1956]: 265). Extending the legacy of Jacques Roumain, it enlarges the settings, formal daring, thematic range, and visionary reach of the Haitian peasant and working-class novel. His influence among contemporary writers continues to be felt near the end of the twentieth century and is particularly evident in René Depestre's Le mât de cocagne (1979) and Pierre Clitandre's Cathédrale du mois d'aout (1982).

Radical opposition to the François Duvalier regime forced Alexis to leave Haiti clandestinely in 1960. Attempting to land secretly at Mole Saint Nicholas a year later as part of a small guerrilla group, Alexis was apprehended, imprisoned, and finally stoned to death by his captors. In addition to published novels, stories, and essays bearing witness to his passionate devotion to Haiti's common folk and a historical materialist critique of essentialist versions of négritude, he left behind two unpublished works in progress, L'Eglantine and L'étoile absinthe.

See alsoLescot, Élie; Négritude.


Europe: Revue Mensuelle 49, no. 501 (January 1971), is largely devoted to an assessment of Alexis and the literature of Haiti. See also J. Michael Dash, Jacques Stéphen Alexis (1975), and David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (1979).

Additional Bibliography

Boadas, Aura Marina. Lo barroco en la obra de Jacques Stephen Alexis. Caracas: Centro de Estudios Latinoa-mericanos Rómulo Gallegos, 1992.

Jonassaint, Jean. Des romans de tradition haïtienne: sur un récit tragique. Paris: L'Hartmann, and Montreal: CIDIHCA, 2002.

Mudimbe-boyi, M. Elisabeth. L'oeuvre romanesque de Jacques-Stephen Alexis: une écriture poétique, un engagement politique. Montreal: Humanitas nouvelle optique, 1992.

Sarner, Eric. La Passe du vent: une histoire haïtienne. Paris: Editions Payot & Rivages, 1994. This work has been translated into Spanish and published as El paso de viento: una historia haitiana. Translated by Tatiana Sule Fernández. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1999.

                                       Roberto MÁrquez