Fiction as a Forum for Critical Reflections on Folklore: The Case of Alfred Mercier's L'Habitation Saint-Ybars (1881)

By Jennifer Gipson


In 1881, shortly after the appearance of Alfred Mercier's novel of plantation life, L'Habitation Saint-Ybars, Maîtres et esclaves en Louisiane: récit social, Lafcadio Hearn published a glowing review, proclaiming the author to be "no mere romance writer" but instead "a keen observer, a philosophical thinker, a fine sociological analyst, and an artist in style" (1929 [1881]). This was high praise coming from Hearn, whose own stylistic bravura and observations of Louisiana life regularly graced the pages of the New Orleans press during his time in the city. But in enumerating the varied roles which Mercier executes so well, Hearn, himself a collector and commentator of local tradition, does not include that of folklorist.

Today, as well, Mercier is remembered as a writer, not a folklorist. And more recent critics of L'Habitation Saint-Ybars, now the best known of Mercier's seven novels, have primarily noted its extended use of Louisiana Creole, its investigation of the moral, psychological, and social impacts of slavery, and its candid portrayal of race and racial mixing. Yet, it is precisely within this framework that Mercier presents his reflections on Louisiana Creole oral traditions. And these reflections are made all the more meaningful by their subtlety. In fact, Mercier uses the very ambiguities and ironies that fiction allows to explore the context, function, and power of slave narrative, itself built on a system of multiple meanings and superficial innocence.

Born in 1816, Mercier trained as a doctor in France and lived there for some time, returning to New Orleans in 1868 to practice medicine.1 A leading proponent of the French language, Mercier was behind the founding of the intellectual and cultural association the Athénée Louisianais in 1876, and his writings on topics from nihilism to sleepwalking to literature appear regularly in the pages of its Comptes Rendus. As "the only white native-born liberal among the major Louisiana authors of his century" (Brosman 2013:47), Mercier was no stranger to controversial topics. He tackled clerical celibacy and abortion in other novels and sharply critiqued slavery and its aftermath in L'Habitation Saint-Ybars, albeit while simultaneously indulging in certain nostalgic tropes like the figure of the loyal Mammy who willingly remains with a family after freedom.2 When the American Folklore Society was founded in 1888 and the Louisiana Branch four years later, Mercier, who died in 1894, was well into his declining years. In France, however, folklore, often called traditions populaires, had enjoyed renewed interest by the 1870s. Mercier corresponded with French scholars like Henri Gaidoz and Eugène Rolland and contributed Louisiana Creole tales to their journal Mélusine (e.g., 1878). Mercier's Étude sur la langue créole en Louisiane (1880), the first linguistic description of Louisiana Creole, undoubtedly prepared the way for later folklore study, especially Creole tale collections by Alcée Fortier, a French-speaker of a younger generation who would later be president of the American Folklore Society. Even in this grammar, Mercier continues to link oral traditions to the Creole language, giving a folktale as a linguistic illustration. The Creole language, which Mercier (1880:381) says "se prête au récit" (lends itself to narrative) and "excelle dans le conte" (excels in the tale),3 pervades L'Habitation Saint-Ybars, yet the novel contains none of the folk narrative apparently so central to Mercier's conception of the black Creole-speaker and the Louisiana Creole language.

Thus, Mercier's novel does not fit the usual profile for studies of folklore and literature. Historically, understandings of folklore and literature relied on the extraction of folkloric data from the literary text, data that for Richard Dorson (1957) needed to be validated by origins and authorial knowledge. Alan Dundes (1965) would later build on these earlier ideas, pointing back to how folkloric content functioned in the literary text. In more recent years, increasing awareness of the porousness of scholarly categories–including folklore and literature–makes it easier for folklorists to conceive of cultural transmission and artistic creation as multi-directional and multi-faceted. We know, for example, that printed materials can pass into or return to folkloric circulation, which need not itself even be oral. Naturally, however, folkloric content still remains the primary manifestation of folklore in literature.

Yet, just as the boundaries between folklore and literature can be porous, so too can the analytical–not only documentary-work that we associate with folklorists overlap with the work of writers, and this in innumerable ways. Frank de Caro and Rosan Jordan, for example, argue that Zora Neale Hurston attends to both artistic and scholarly concerns in her 1935 Mules and Men. Hurston, who could not get a stand-alone tale collection published, created a frame narrative that tells the story of the narrator's quest for folkloric material and then based her embedded stories largely on her field work. Though the frame narrative is a familiar literary convention, Hurston's frame not only introduced the stories but also "anticipated more recent scientific folklore study which acknowledges the need to include context along with text and textual analysis" (de Caro and Jordan 2004:242). Building on this conclusion, it might be noted that writers without Hurston's academic background in folklore can still use fiction to engage critically in their own way with traditions, their context, function, and social currency. In such instances, whether or not a particular writer is usually thought of as a "folklorist" relies on a historically and culturally relative label that does not necessarily illuminate the nuances of the text, the circumstances of its production, or the thinking about tradition that it might reflect.4 Alfred Mercier offers a case in point, exploring the place of oral traditions and vernacular systems of meaning in the plantation universe of his novel.

The novel begins in May of 1851 with the arrival of a young emmigré to New Orleans, Antony Pélasge.5 Fleeing the political climate of his native France, where he fought in the barricades of 1848, this liberal Frenchman will eventually be engaged as a teacher on the Saint-Ybars plantation, outside of New Orleans. The Saint-Ybars family is numerous, including Monsieur Saint-Ybars, his wife, his father (known as Vieumaite), and his many children, among them Pélasge's student, nicknamed Démon, and Démon's twin sister, known as Chant-d'Oisel. In the sugar cane fields alone, there are four hundred slaves at the start, with more working in the house, like Démon and Chant-d'Oisel's adoring nurse Mamrie. When the action ends in the 1870s, most of the initial characters have died. Pélasge returns to Europe, having witnessed the pervasive and all-encompassing corrosiveness of slavery and its aftermath. Even amidst the novel's often melodramatic plot developments, the author's more serious aspirations are clear: Mercier, inspired by French Naturalism, not only intends to narrate social phenomena but investigate them.6

The opening chapter establishes folktales as part of the cultural landscape Mercier studies. Saint-Ybars, convinced by his daughter Chant-d'Oisel to buy the beautiful slave woman Titia at the auction, is faced with a dilemma: Titia's elederly mother Lagniappe pleads to be taken along. Saint-Ybars agrees on the condition that Lagniappe, whose deformed legs leave her to move about in a crablike fashion, makes it to the steamboat by the appointed hour. Lagniappe replies that she, like justice, arrives slowly but arrives nonetheless. Fergus, Saint-Ybar's newly purchased blacksmith, builds on this comparison: "That is true. Justice and you, that's like the the turtle in the story. The turtle reached the finish line before Brother Deer, and the turtle married Mademoiselle Calinda. I bet you'll arrive at the steamboat before us all" (Mercier 2015:33).7 A version of the tale in question (ATU 1074 "Race Won by Deception: Relative Helpers") appears in Mercier's linguistic description as "Mariage Mlle Calinda" (1880:382-383).8 It is a trickster tale, with the slow tortoise using strategically placed family members to give the impression that he is keeping pace. Here, however, there is no mention of content and no explanation; the tale remains merely a reference.

The next explicit mention of slave tales comes in chapter 4, a chapter devoted to the dinner held the evening of Pélasge's arrival at the Saint-Ybars plantation. His pedagogical role delayed by the absence of his student, the newcomer spends most of the chapter observing the plantation household around a vast dinner table. As a foreigner seeing antebellum Louisiana for the first time, Pélasge provides a narrative pretext for explanation and philosophical reflection. He is, for example, puzzled by the affection Vieumaite displays in sharing delicacies from the table with children of house slaves, actions Vieumaite qualifies as perfectly normal (108). Pélasge will not waiver from his moral opposition to slavery but attempts to understand such surprising nuances of this institution on which plantation life relies. The arrival of Démon's outgoing tutor, the rather ridiculous M. MacNara, mockingly called Monsieur Héhé because of a verbal tic, interrupts Pélasge's silent musings on slavery. The conversation turns towards the fact that Démon has, as seems to be his habit, missed dinner and the edifying adult conversation it supposedly offers. However, questions of master/slave relations raised by Vieumaite's comments, which would seem to have been supplanted by the discussion of a white child's education, soon resurface as Mercier reveals the real reason for Démon's absence, namely his affinity for the conversation, company, and storytelling of the plantation's slaves.

Démon's twin sister offers a simple explanation for her brother's behavior: he eats faster than the others and gets bored afterwards, so it makes sense for him to arrive late (108). For Monsieur Héhé, however, this boredom is symptomatic of Démon's larger failings:

"All right, Mademoiselle," resumed Monsieur Héhé. "But if your brother had the same eagerness to learn as do children destined to shine one day in the world, he'd stay at the table the whole time to listen to adult conversation. A child always gains a lot listening to an educated man who has mastered his own language. Démon doesn't know how to listen. That's unfortunate, but it's a fact. Isn't that so, Mademoiselle Pulchérie?" (52)9

Monsieur Héhé, the narrator has already told us, believes that some people are destined to command and others to obey. As Démon fails to fit into his narrowly-defined notion of intelligence and potential that would qualify him for the former category, Monsieur Héhé sees nothing more to be said or done.

Mademoiselle Pulchérie, Saint-Ybars's maiden cousin who is clearly enamored with Monsieur Héhé, happily concurs, as Chant-d'Oisel defends her brother:

"That is correct," grumbled Mademoiselle Pulchérie, "but what can one do? Monsieur Démon prefers the conversation of slaves. He's always hanging around the kitchen."

"Démon leaves the table," Chant d'Oisel pointed out, "when people talk about things that he doesn't understand. He likes to hear the slaves tell stories because nothing they say escapes him."

"If this dear girl didn't always try to make excuses for her brother," Mademoiselle Pulchérie said bitterly, "it would be quite extraordinary." (52)10

Démon, we learn, is amongst the family's Creole-speaking slaves, being exposed to the exact opposite of educated conversation and linguistic mastery as Monsieur Héhé conceives of them. Chant-d'Oisel's intervention introduces this new information, but with the goal of justifying her brother's actions.

The final remarks of this exchange, however, belong to Vieumaite, who, in the space of a few sentences, moves from the specific situation of Démon's behavior to a more general statement about the very tales in question:

"You're right, Chant d'Oisel," Vieumaite fired back. "It's always necessary to defend those not present. I think Démon shows intelligence in listening only to what he understands. He likes the slaves' tales? That's quite natural. Who didn't like to listen to them at his age? Besides, let's make no mistake. These stories contain a subtle and delicate wickedness in addition to their dramatic interest." (52)11

In an article about Mercier's use of Creole and French, Lawrence Rosenwald has noted the link Mercier makes between the genre of the conte and the Creole language, going on to remark that "Vieumaite rightly sees in the LFC [Louisiana French Creole] contes something more than empty entertainment; he appreciates their subtlety and irony. But even for him, they are something for children; and in any case, they are contes and not treatises" (2002:223). In fact, Vieumaite initially seems to echo Chant-d'Oisel's sentiments. Yet, in acknowledging the interest of these tales for children, he does not limit the multiple valences of their meaning.

Modern understandings of folk narrative have stressed the role of this façade of simplicity in the function of tale, especially animal trickster tales. As Lawrence Levine notes, "The white master could believe that the rabbit stories his slaves told were mere figments of a childish imagination, that they were primarily humorous anecdotes depicting the 'roaring comedy of animal life.' Blacks knew better." These talking animals thus became a vehicle for hidden meaning or subversive expression:

The beings that came to life in these stories [animal trickster tales] were so created as to be human enough to be identified with but at the same time exotic enough to allow both storytellers and listeners a latitude and freedom that came only with much more difficulty and daring in tales explicitly concerning human beings. This latitude was crucial, for the one central feature of almost all trickster tales is their assault upon deeply ingrained and culturally sanctioned values. (Levine [1977] 2007:103-104)

Mercier's character Vieumaite, the plantation patriarch who spends his retirement days conducting scientific experiments and reading the leading journals of the United States and Europe (95), naturally uses very different terms but gestures towards a similar narrative mechanism in the last lines of chapter four.

Vieumaite begins with two introductory locutions: "du reste," indicating something in addition to or that goes further than what has already been said, and "ne nous trompons pas," a call not to be mistaken that clearly indicates the possibility of being mistaken. The remainder of the sentence enumerates two aspects of slaves tales: ". . . il y a dans ces récits, outre l'intérêt du drame, une malice quelquefois trés fine" (109). Vieumaite immediately subordinates the first element "l'intérêt du drame"–presumably the interest of the plot that even children can follow–with the preposition "outre," indicating that something additional will follow. The second element, which Mercier's syntax displaces to the end of the sentence and to the final words of the chapter, is new: "une malice quelquefois très fine." A more literal translation, reflecting this syntax, might read "Besides, let us not be mistaken, there is in these tales, apart the interest of the plot, a sometimes quite subtle maliciousness."

Mercier's use of the word "malice," however, is also quite significant. Littré's dictionary, the leading reference for late nineteenth-century France, gives several definitions of "malice." Though later secondary definitions are less forceful, perhaps closer to mischievousness in English, the foremost usages of "malice" reflect a more deliberate intent to do ill, consistent with the word's etymological roots. Mercier's opposition of this "malice" with a more innocent enjoyment of plot would seem to suggest something more than minor mischief. If some ambiguity still remains on the semantic level, though, its significance is quickly negated in light of the socio-cultural context of slavery: even minor mischief alone could constitute a serious affront to total submission. Most importantly, perhaps, is that this "malice" is an invariable ingredient in Vieumaite's concept of tales: it is not that "malice" is sometimes present, but that it is present and is sometimes ("quelquefois") very subtle.12

Though these few words constitute a fairly remarkable statement for 1881, Mercier was not the first white writer to hint an underlying significance to slave tales. In his 1880 introduction to Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, Atlanta journalist Joel Chandler Harris points to an identification between the tale teller and rabbit trickster, small in size but successful in his machinations:

It needs no scientific investigation to show why he selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness. (1881:10)13

Still, however, many notions of black creative expression at least superficially ascribed to these tales a simplicity that reflected the supposed intellectual simplicity of their tellers. Even Alcée Fortier, dedicated to collecting and preserving Louisiana Creole lore, speaks of Creole folktales as "related to children by childlike people" (1887:100) and directly links the Creole language to perceptions of its speakers: "Their language partakes of their character, and is sometimes quaint, and always simple" (1885:102). Scholarly paradigms of the day, often concerned with geographical origins of tales or the linguistic data they offered, also made it easy to overlook the potentially uncomfortable question of how they functioned in a particular context like slavery or extreme oppression.

At first glance, Mercier seems to conform to such paradigms in giving the tale "Mariage Mlle Calinda" as an illustration in his linguistic study, which appeared the year before L'Habitation Saint-Ybars. Yet, in a brief introduction to the appended tale, Mercier gestures to something beyond linguistic interest. First, he summarizes the story of Brother Tortoise and Brother Deer, rivals for the hand of Mademoiselle Calinda, who agrees to marry whichever suitor wins a race. Like a good trickster, the naturally disadvantaged Tortoise turns the tables on the dupe, and symbolically on the social order, by waiting at the finish line while relatives stand in for him throughout the course–winning the race and the woman. Mercier's interpretation, however, focuses not this victory but on the advice that made the strategy possible, advice Brother Tortoise obtained from a cunning old crocodile, known as Compair Zavoca (Brother Lawyer):

It is there that we see the tale teller's intention: beneath a mantle of abundant good nature, he subtly mocks the inventive capacities of lawyers. Thanks to the ingenious advice of the old crocodile, Brother Tortoise weds Mademoiselle Calinda.14 (Translation my own.)

Like his character Vieumaite, Mercier acknowledges that one superficial level of meaning disguises another more critical one. Here, however, the supposition that the teller's foremost intent was to make fun of lawyers–a concern seemingly more likely to be that of Mercier and his readers–diffuses this observation.

In L'Habitation Saint-Ybars, by comparison, Mercier both says something different about the function of Creoles tales and uses a different forum, that of fiction. If we cannot necessarily equate an author's thinking with voice of a fictional character, we can know what his novel asks readers to think about. For example, the sweeping remarks about slave tales attributed to Vieumaite are clearly much more provocative than the limited comments on one tale Mercier makes in his linguistic study. Furthermore, Mercier uses the fictional, antebellum context of his novel to dramatize the implications of acknowledging a deeper meaning of such contes, and, thus, acknowledging the agency of their tellers. Indeed, the expressive, critical, and even subversive potential of these oral tales troubles the very rhetoric of intellectual inferiority that justified slavery–and later a post-war racial orde–and suggests that subversion, albeit disguised, cannot be fully suppressed. Vieumaite, literally "Old Master," could never be master of all: stories will be told, and these stories mean something. For members of the dominant class, such lack of control over any aspect of slave life would have been profoundly uncomfortable. Mercier drives this point home, by having Vieumaite ask who at the table can deny having enjoyed such stories as a child.

Vieumaite's remarks, prefaced by "ne nous trompons pas," thus become a comment on white understandings of black cultural codes, implying that anyone who sees mere infantile entertainment in these tales has been outsmarted by the very people they thought so simple. Mercier never deliberately interpolates his readers, but the parallel is clear: many of them would have answered in the affirmative to Vieumaite's question about who at the table had enjoyed slave tales as a child. Indeed, at the heart of this scene are questions of perception and of recognizing fictions perpetrated to support the dominant order–questions still relevant in the 1880s when the jolly storytelling slave was finding his place in the antebellum idyll of the white cultural imagination. In the novel, Démon enjoys slave tales because, as his sister says, nothing escapes him. Vieumaite's words, however, suggest that these tales may have different levels of meaning, and outsiders' perceptions of their own understanding of the tales may be clouded by their ignorance of this. Being ignorant of a deeper meaning does not prevent one from believing that one has a deeper understanding.

Yet none of this is ever explicit, and the discussion of slave tales in Mercier's novel might, to some degree, constitute a mise en abyme of the multiple layers of meaning the tales themselves present. For Mercier, too, has given some plot which could distract from the seriousness of Vieumaite's last remark. Fiction, with all of the meaning that its context creates, simultaneously allows some distance from this same meaning precisely because so much relies on interpretation. And Mercier leaves much more to interpretation in this scene than usual. For most of chapter 4, for example, the events during the dinner are secondary to the narrator's account of Pélasge's reflections on them. At the very end of the chapter, with the exchange between Monsieur Héhé, Mademoiselle Pulchérie, Chant-d'Oisel, and Vieumaite, the focalization of the narration suddenly changes. We no longer know Pélasge's thoughts. Direct discourse replaces indirect discourse. Spare one lone adverb in "dit aigrement Mlle Pulchérie," the narrator's characterization of the scene is limited to the variation of verbs to attribute quotations.

On the one hand, by offering no specific analysis or actual tales, Mercier avoids much of the substance of the problem that his novel highlights: white misunderstanding of black signifying practices.15 At the same time, though, this lack of interpretation acts as almost a respectful deference to the multiple meanings of the tales themselves–meanings that are nowhere stated to be fully appreciable to the white French-speaker anyway. Whatever interpretative work remains is now the task of the reader. Yet, what is not said can speak louder than what is said. As one chapter ends with Vieumaite's words "une malice quelquefois trés fine," the next chapter begins "Vieumaite would have probably said more if it wasn't for the racket that suddenly filled the courtyard [. . .]" (53).16 This clamor is Démon, and all attention shifts to him. Mercier's own irony shines through here: he makes a silence represent not a lack of things to say but an interruption of what could have been said but will not be. Indeed, Mercier"s characters never directly address the function of folk narrative again, and the novel reproduces no folkloric content, save one snippet of folksong (124-125).17

Explicitly and implicitly, though, Mercier's novel counters the cultural shorthand that had made Creole a marker of racialized inferiority, simplicity, and, sometimes utter ridiculousness in satire by white writers after the Civil War.18 Transposing academic trends of later decades to the novel's setting, Mercier, in a clearly self-reflexive gesture, has Démon, who grows up to study in France, publish Creole from Mamrie in French journals. Pélasge, now versant in the Creole language that once mystified him, provides the accompanying linguistic commentary (201). This transatlantic exchange figures an intellectual and cultural link with the French mainland that would appeal to Mercier and other white Louisiana French-speakers. At the same time, however, his novel makes a case for Louisiana Creole meriting serious and even scholarly consideration on both sides of the Atlantic. Certainly, this served Mercier's own scholarly agenda. Yet, as French-lexifier Creoles were gaining interest in France and the discipline of folklore was emerging in the United States, Mercier also points others towards the Louisiana Creole language and culture and, in so many ways, is far ahead of his time in what he says about both.

That Mercier was ahead of his time, however, does not mean that he conforms to the ideologies of our time. With this in mind, it comes at as no surprise that Mercier does not depict folk narrative as the equal of other genres. He mentions at one point the care taken in the education of Blanchette, abandoned as a child and raised as a member of the family, to avoid filling her mind with tales and legends, instead speaking "the language of reason" (171),19 presumably French. This aligns with Mercier's view of Creole as the language of storytelling par excellence but not the language of abstract philosophical reflection (1880:381).20 Mercier could champion Creole–and was, indeed, one of the language's greatest champions in nineteenth-century Louisiana–without abandoning all hierarchies of language, genre, or race.

At the same time, neither the French language nor education are requisites to meaningful expression in Mercier's fictional universe. The most despicable slave, nicknamed Monsieur le duc de Lauzun (presumably Vieumaite's illegitimate son), offers an extreme negative example, admiring insignificant writers, blindly imitating their inferior style, and eventually claiming to have forgotten French when English better serves his political ambitions. Conversely, the most sympathetic slave characters make use of the French language or culture in intelligent ways, even if still speaking Creole. As Rosenwald rightly notes, "The free circulation of language is accompanied by an equally free circulation of culture" (2002:224). For example, Mamrie uses the tune of a French folksong "Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre" for Creole verses mocking Monsieur Héhé–itself a clear indication of the subversive capacity of the language and its speakers (143).

To this, however, it should be added that Mercier contrasts not only the creative output of different slaves but also that of a cowardly white character. Immediately before the discussion of slave tales in chapter 4, Monsieur Héhé had been introduced as someone who memorizes puns from newspapers and is a frequent teller of stories, always wanting to have something better to say than everyone else (108). Mercier makes no explicit link to the slave tales discussed in the following passages, but the immediate juxtaposition of these two kinds of narratives invites comparison. Monsieur Héhé's self-congratulatory oral performances are not about slow and subtle significance but about a social game of visibly outdoing others, when, unbeknownst to him, he is being outdone by the very slaves whom he hardly considers capable of thought. Thus, Mercier valorizes what we might call folkloric creation: not memorization, imitation, or emulation, but the open adaptation of a wide range of examples and influences to make new and often multivalent meaning rooted in its time and place.

To argue whether Mercier "qualifies" as a folklorist, however, would probably reveal more about our own labels and shifting disciplinary lines than it would Mercier's work. Instead, L'Habitation Saint-Ybars shows that Mercier merits examination for his place in the historical development of thinking about the traditions and modes of expression we now call folklore, both for the content of what he says and for the literary form in which he says it. Indeed, the crux of what is arguably Mercier's most profound statement about folklore comes in one sentence of a novel from which the actual content of the tales in question is markedly absent. Instead, the underlying story that Mercier tells is one about the functions of oral cultural expression among Creole-speakers, how others understand or fail to understand this, and, by extension, the world around them. Mercier capitalizes on the power of his own literary narrative to create a fictional context that implicitly interrogates the power of Creole folk narrative. And, if we expect scholarly discourse to disambiguate and explicate, Mercier's novel stands as a reminder that fiction plays by different rules. Intellectual inquiry or critical engagement can happen in fiction without being the foremost goals and can happen in very subtle ways–perhaps, as L'Habitation Saint-Ybars suggests, in ways that only fiction allows.


1. Biographical information on Mercier appears in the standard references for nineteenth-century Louisiana, for example Tinker ([1923] 1975-364). Reinecke (1983:161) correctly observes that some of Mercier's early reviewers or biographers overlook the anti-slavery currents in L'Habitation Saint-Ybars. Viatte (1954) adds little new information but does acknowledge Mercier's moral and political stance (esp. 289). For Mercier's surviving diaries (in French) as well as background information in English, see Robertson (1947). Réginald Hamel's notes and introduction to his 1989 edition of L'Habitation Saint-Ybars also provide useful information about Mercier's life and times.

2. Mercier was hardly immune to some idealization of the antebellum past, details which can be difficult for modern readers to reconcile with many of the novel's anti-slavery strains. However, some such details could also be interpreted as rendering the novel's ultimate judgement of slavery only more forceful: Mercier depicts not the most barbarous of masters but the barbarity of the institution even in the hands of the most liberal of slave holders.

3. Translations are my own, except when a published English translation is cited.

4. Examples are necessarily numerous and varied. For instance, Propser Mérimée, master of the short story and proponent of historic preservation in nineteenth-century France, did not necessarily collect folklore, in the modern sense, though he commented on collection efforts in France and had even published a wildly popular literary mystification of Serbo-Croatian ballads as young man. Such a foray into what Dorson would have called "fakelore," however, does not negate Mérimée's insight into folklore or the politics of authenticity, which he explores explicitly in his 1869 story "Lokis" in which the narrator mistakes an original composition for the age-old folkloric and linguistic data he seeks (Mérimée 1978:esp. 1062).

5. For an extensive English-language summary of L'Habitation Saint-Ybars see Reinecke (1983:160-170). It should be noted Éditions Tintamarre 2015 translation (trans. Elizabeth A. Julian), cited here, now makes this novel available to English-speaking audiences in its entirety.

6. Maîtres et esclaves en Louisiane: récit social, the subtitle of L'Habitation Saint-Ybars even recalls that of Les Rougon-Macquart, Émile Zola's great cycle of Naturalist novels: Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire.

7. "Ça cé kichoge ki vrai; la jistice épi vou cé comme torti dan conte: torti-là rivé coté bite avan comper chivreil, é li marié mamzel Calinda. Mo parié va rivé coté stimbotte-là divan nouzotte" (1989:88). French or Creole quotations come from Reginald Hamel's 1989 edition of L'Habitation Saint-Ybars and will henceforth be cited by page numbers only. For an unannotated but more readily available French version of the novel, see the 2003 printing from Éditions Tintamarre. English translations are from the Éditions Tintamarre 2015 translation (trans. Elizabeth A. Julian) and will also be cited parenthetically.

8. The same tale had appeared in the newspaper the Meschacébé of July 15, 1876, signed Vié Jack, which Tinker reports to be Mercier's pseudonym (1936:137). This tale appears, like the three preceding tales in this series of "contes nègres" from the Meschacébé, to have been adapted from four "Negro Fables" that appeared in the same order the in the English-language Riverside Magazine (1868), though this tale diverges most significantly. On Mercier's links to the Meschacébé "contes nègres" of 1876 and the identity politics of white French-speakers writing in the oral language of Louisiana Creole, see my article "'A Strange, Ventriloquous Voice': Louisiana Creole, Whiteness, and the Racial Politics of Writing Orality" forthcoming in the Journal of American Folklore.

9. "'D'accord, Mademoiselle, reprit M. Héhé; mais si votre frère avait cette avidité d'apprendre que montrent les enfants destinés à briller un jour dans le monde, il resterait tout le temps à table pour écouter la conversation des grandes personnes. Un enfant gagne toujours beaucoup aux entretiens d'un homme instruit et maître de sa langue. Démon ne sait pas écouter; c'est malheureux, mais c'est un fait. J'en appelle à Mlle Pulchérie'" (109).

10. "'Parfaitement, grommela Mlle Pulchérie; mais qu'y faire? M. Démon préfère la conversation des nègres; il est toujours fourré dans la cuisine.'"

'Démon quitte la table, remarqua Chant-d'Oisel, quand on parle de choses qu'il ne comprend pas. Il aime à entendre les nègres raconter des contes, parce que rien de ce qu'ils disent ne lui échappe.

'Si Mademoiselle ne cherchait pas à excuser son frère, dit aigrement Mlle Pulchérie, ce serait bien extraordinaire'" (109).

11. "'Tu as raison, Chant-d'Oisel, riposta Vieumaite; il faut toujours prendre la défense des absents. Je trouve, moi, que Démon fait preuve d'intelligence en n'écoutant que ce qu'il comprend. Il aime les contes des nègres? c'est bien naturel. Qui de nous, à son âge, ne les a pas écoutés avec plaisir? Du reste, ne nous y trompons pas, il y a dans ces réécits, outre l'intérêt du drame, une malice quelquefois très fine'" (109).

12. In the course of his article on L'Habitation Saint-Ybars, Rosenwald gives a different translation: "And let's not fool ourselves–there is sometimes a very subtle irony in these stories, and not just the interest of the plot" (2002:223).

13. This parallel would become more prevalent in the coming years in various readings of slave tales (Levine [1977] 2007:112). However, assuming a simple one-on-one symbolic correspondence is still rather reductionist and cannot account for the ambiguities at the heart of these tales (Levine [1977] 2007:114-121). While the publication date of this, Harris's first Uncle Remus collection, is given as 1881, this reflects the date of the publisher's catalogue; the copyright date is 1880 and the work was released in November of that year (Hemenway 1982:14). Mercier's novel appeared in late 1881. Without further information, it is impossible to determine if Mercier could have known of Harris' comments about "malice" and "mischievousness" when he opted for the French word "malice" in L'Habitation Saint-Ybars.

14. "C'est là que l'on voit l'intention du conteur; sous un air de grosse bonhomie il raille avec finesse l'habilité inventive de messieurs les avocats. Grêce à l'ingénieux avis du vieux crocodile, compère Tortue épouse Mlle Calinda" (1880:381).

15. For Jones (1999:120), decoding (multiple) meanings is a problem to which Cable at times falls victim in his essays yet partially understands and dramatizes in The Grandissmes (1999:126-127).

16. "Vieumaite en eût probablement dit davantage sans le vacarme qui se fit tout à coup dans la cour [. . .]" (110).

17. By contrast, George Washington Cable's 1880 novel The Grandissmes, no doubt familiar to Mercier for the backlash its portrayal of racial hybridity provoked among white French-speakers in New Orleans, integrates a surprising density and variety of Creole song, without it being meaningless or purely decorative. On this point, see, for example, Rosenwald (2008:76-79).

18. For example, the most famous and numerous Reconstruction-era satires appeared in the Carillon from 1872 to 1875.

19. "le langage de la raison" (216).

20. An additional interpretation would be that Mercier further underscores Blanchette's cultural whiteness through the "whiteness" of her education. The pale-skinned Blanchette and her godfather turned fiancé Démon will be driven to death when it is revealed that Blanchette is the daughter of the runaway slave Titia.

Works Cited

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Brosman, Catharine Savage. 2013. Louisiana Creole Literature: A Historical Study. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

De Caro, Frank, and Rosan Augusta Jordan. 2004. Re-situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

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Dundes, Alan. 1965. The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation. Journal of American Folklore 78 (308): 136-142.

Fortier, Alcée. 1885. The French Language in Louisiana, and the Negro-French Dialect. Modern Language Association of America. Proceedings 2: xl-xlv.

____. 1887. Bits of Louisiana Folk-Lore. Transactions and Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America 3: 100-168.

Harris, Joel Chandler. 1881. Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-lore of the Old Plantation. New York: Appleton.

Hearn, Lafcadio. 1929. The New Louisiana Novel. In Essays on American Literature, edited by Sanki Ichikawa, 74-78. Hokuseido Press: Tokyo. Original edition, 1881.

Hemenway, Robert. 1982. Introduction to Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, by Joel Chandler Harris. New York: Penguin Books.

Jones, Gavin. 1999. Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Levine, Lawrence W. [1977] 2007. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Original edition, 1977.

Littré, Émile. 1874. Malice. In Dictionnaire de la langue française. Paris: Hachette.

Mercier, Alfred. 1880. Étude sur la langue créole en Louisiane. Les Comptes rendus de L'Athénée Louisianais July: 378-383.

____, ed. 1989. L'Habitation Saint-Ybars, ou, Maîtres et esclaves en Louisiane: récit social. Edited by Réginald Hamel. Montreal: Guérin. Original edition, 1881.

____. 2015. Saint-Ybars: Masters and Slaves in Creole Louisiana. Translated by Elizabeth A. Julian. Shreveport: Éditions Tintamarre.

Reinecke, George. 1983. Alfred Mercier, French Novelist of New Orleans. In In Old New Orleans, edited by W. Kenneth Holditch. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Robertson, Gloria Nobles. 1947. The Diaries of Dr. Alfred Mercier, 1879-1893. M.A., Louisiana State University.

Rosenwald, Lawrence. 2002. Alfred Mercier's Polyglot Plantation Novel of Louisiana. In American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni, edited by Marc Shell, 219-237. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

____. 2008. Alfred Mercier, George W. Cable, and Louisiana French Creole. In Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature, 48-81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tinker, Edward Larocque. 1936. Gombo: The Creole Dialect of Louisiana. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society.

____. [1923] 1975. Les écrits de langue française en Louisiane au XIXe siècle, Bibliothèque de la Revue de littérature comparée No 85. Genève: Slatkine. Original edition, 1923.

Viatte, Auguste. 1954. Histoire littéraire de l'Amérique française: dès origines à 1950. Québec / Paris: Presses Universitaires Laval / Presses Universitaires de France.

This article was first published in the 2016 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Jennifer Gipson is Assistant Professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.