Authors: Aimé Césaire

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Martinican poet and playwright

Identity: African descent

Author Works

Poetry:

Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, 1939, 1947, 1956 (Memorandum on My Martinique, 1947; better known as Return to My Native Land, 1968)

Les Armes miraculeuses, 1946 (Miraculous Weapons, 1983)

Soleil cou coupé, 1948 (Beheaded Sun, 1983)

Corps perdu, 1950 (Disembodied, 1983)

Ferrements, 1960 (Shackles, 1983)

Cadastre, 1961 (revised edition of Soleil cou coupé and Corps perdu; Cadastre: Poems, 1973)

State of the Union, 1966 (includes abridged translation of Miraculous Weapons and Shackles); Moi, Laminaire, 1982

Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry, 1983

Non-vicious Circle: Twenty Poems, 1985

Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, 1946-1982, 1990

La Poésie, 1994

Drama:

Et les chiens se taisaient, pb. 1956

La Tragédie du Roi Christophe, pb. 1963 (The Tragedy of King Christophe, 1964)

Une Saison au Congo, pb. 1966 (A Season in the Congo, 1968)

Une Tempête, d’après “La Tempête” de Shakespeare: Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre, pr., pb. 1969 (A Tempest, 1974)

Nonfiction:

Discours sur le colonialisme, 1950 (Discourse on Colonialism, 1972)

Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème coloniale, 1960

Miscellaneous:

Œuvres complètes, 1976

Biography

Aimé Fernand Césaire (say-zehr), once regarded as the most prominent poet of the Caribbean world, was a cofounder (with Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas) of the influential négritude movement, which sought to restore the cultural identity and dignity of colonized Africans in the 1950’s. The second of six children, Aimé Césaire was the son of Fernand Césaire, who held a minor bureaucratic post as a tax inspector, and Marie Hermine, a dressmaker.{$I[AN]9810001219}{$I[A]Césaire, Aimé}{$I[geo]MARTINIQUE;Césaire, Aimé}{$I[geo]WEST INDIES;Césaire, Aimé}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Césaire, Aimé}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Césaire, Aimé}{$I[tim]1913;Césaire, Aimé}

Aimé Césaire

While his family’s standard of living was close to that of the rural poor, the level of education of both his father and his paternal grandfather, as well as his father’s status as a functionary, set them apart from most black families in Martinique. Eugénie, widow of Aimé Césaire’s grandfather, Fernand Césaire, assumed the role of first teacher to the Césaire children; under her tutelage, Aimé learned to read and write by the age of four, two years before he entered primary school. While primary education was free, secondary education necessitated considerable financial sacrifice. Nevertheless, Césaire’s family moved to Fort-de-France in order to provide their children with a secondary education. Learning the French language and its culture (in addition to learning the first language of all Martinicans–Creole) was the paramount social goal for black children born into families attempting to achieve middle-class status. The family’s conscious effort to inculcate French cultural norms made it easier for the Césaire children to acclimate themselves to the somewhat alien surroundings of the Lycée Victor Schoelcher in Fort-de-France. Yet as a writer and poet, Césaire would be faced much later with the painful task of cutting those ties to the French language and culture that he had developed in the process of assimilation.

At the urging of one of his teachers, Césaire went on to attend the Lycee Louis-le-Grand to prepare him for entrance into the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he met two African students who were to have an important personal influence on his black identity: Ousmane Socé and Léopold Senghor, both from Senegal. (Senghor was to become the first president of the independent republic of Senegal and Socé his first ambassador to the United States.) Senghor joined Césaire and Léon Damas in 1934 in a collective venture intended to bring together on the common ground of blackness the students from Africa and the West Indies. In 1947, Césaire joined the foremost black intellectuals and writers in French, as well as such white supporters as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and André Gide, in founding the literary and cultural journal Présence africaine, initially devoted to endorsing négritude, then to supporting the literature and thought of the black world in general.

It was Césaire who coined the neologism négritude in his call for a resurrection of black values and a war against cultural assimilation in an article written for the student newspaper L’Étudiant noir. Yet Césaire was to lead a life of endless contradictions: He argued against cultural assimilation, for example, while preparing for the entrance examinations to the École Normale Supérieure. After the exams in 1935, he spent the summer in Martinique, where he began writing what was later to become Return to My Native Land. In 1939, when Césaire returned to Martinique for the longest uninterrupted stay of his adult life, the values that would nourish his literary and political activity for the next decade were firmly established.

On July 10, 1937, Césaire married Suzanne Roussy, a Martinican student whom he had met while working at the L’Étudiant noir. The first of their several children was born in 1938. (The marriage eventually ended after a long separation, and Césaire never remarried.) Unlike most writers of his generation in Europe, Césaire spent the war years at home, primarily writing. He was also elected mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy from central Martinique on the Communist Party ticket. Thus, the Surrealist poet committed to black identity soon found himself representing a colonial branch of a Stalinist political party–another contradiction. (Césaire’s break with the Communist Party came in 1956, and in 1958 he led the independent Socialist Martinican Progressive Party.) From 1941 to 1945, Césaire edited the literary magazine Tropiques. The poems written during that period were published as Miraculous Weapons, a collection highly praised by the Surrealist poet André Breton. Césaire’s Surrealist practice as a poet reached its peak in 1948, with the publication of Beheaded Sun. While Shackles is a more mature work, it affirms the crisis in Césaire’s vision of a unified neo-African civilization. Between 1966 and 1982, Césaire published no collections of poetry, and while Moi, Laminaire, published in 1982, was favorably received, most of its themes and techniques were more fully and convincingly treated in Shackles.

After 1960, Césaire launched a second career as a playwright, collaborating with the French director Jean-Marie Serreau. Together they produced one very significant play, The Tragedy of King Christophe, and The Tempest, a very original adaptation of the well-known Shakespearean play. A Season in the Congo has was less well received, in part on political grounds, in part because the author may have been too emotionally involved with his subject, the political murder of Patrice Lumumba. These plays, as well as the earlier Et les chiens se taisaient (and the dogs hold their noise), are viewed as tragedies about decolonization.

Césaire’s activity as a major poet spans two decades, from the late 1930’s to the late 1950’s. His poetic as well as his political contribution consists of an abrupt and violent departure from the dominant French tradition in search of his African past; a replacing of European cultural norms by a syncretic mythology; a dramatization of the hopeful historical period of independence; and a reflective, elegiac rendering of the gap between aspiration and fulfillment in politics. Césaire died at age 94 in Fort-de-France, Martinique on April 17, 2008.

BibliographyArnold, A. James. Introduction to Césaire’s Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82, by Aimé Césaire. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Provides a succinct introduction to Aimé Césaire’s life and work. Offers critical observations that supplement and extend many of the readings in Arnold’s important Modernism and Negritude.Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. This work is certainly the definitive study of Césaire’s poetry and its relationship to both negritude and modernism. Highly readable and elegantly written.Bailey, Marianne Wichmann. The Ritual Theater of Aimé Césaire. Tübingen, Germany: G. Narr, 1992. Analysis of the use of myth and ritual in Aimé Césaire’s writing. Includes bibliography.Confiant, Raphaël. Aimé Césaire: Une Traversée paradoxale du siècle. Paris: Stock, 1993. Fellow West Indian writer and professor of literature Confiant examines Césaire in literary, cultural, and political context. In French.Davis, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A generally chronological examination of the evolution of Césaire’s poetic and intellectual development and its connection to his aesthetics and politics.Eshelman, Clayton, and Annette Smith. Introduction to Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. In this illustrated collection of more than four hundred pages, Eshelman and Smith offer commentary on Césaire to accompany their translations of a selection of his poems for the English-language audience and students. Bibliographical references.Frutkin, Susan. Aimé Césaire: Black Between Worlds. Coral Gables, Fla.: Center for Advanced International Studies, University of Miami, 1973. A short but clearly written document on Césaire’s career. Frutkin covers the biographical details, both actual and intellectual, in a thoroughly convincing manner. While pointing out Césaire’s undeniable contribution to various African American movements, she places him accurately between the two worlds of his French heritage and his black identity.Kennedy, Ellen Conroy, ed. The Negritude Poets. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An excellent collection of translations of French poetry written by black writers from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean area. Kennedy’s preface to Césaire’s work serves as an informative introduction to his work, his career, and his literary significance. Although purists may wince, her abridgment and summary of Return to My Native Land might make Césaire’s difficult work more accessible to the beginner.Kesteloot, Lilyan. Aimé Césaire. 5th ed. Paris: P. Seghers, 1979. An in-depth critical analysis of Aimé Césaire’s work. Includes bibliography. In French.Martin, Gerald, ed. Men of Maize. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993. A collection of essays by various authors relevant to Césaire, poetry as a genre, and Caribbean culture.Munro, Martin. Shaping and Reshaping the Caribbean: The Work of Aimé Césaire and René Depestre. Leeds, England: Maney, 2000. Munro examines Caribbean literature through the works of Césaire and Depestre. Bibliography and index.Pallister, Janis L. Aimé Césaire. New York: Twayne, 1991. Short biography and a critical analysis of Aimé Césaire’s work and career. Includes bibliography and index.Scharfman, Ronnie Leah. Engagement and the Language of the Subject in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1987. This monograph addresses issues of race awareness and politics as well as literature. Bibliography, index.Suk, Jeannie. Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing: Césaire, Glissant, Condé. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 2001. This study of Caribbean writing includes analysis and discussion of the works of Césaire.
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