Victor Séjour was the first African-American known to have published a work of fiction. It was a short story about slavery, but he never returned to the subject again, preferring to write big costume dramas in Paris, France.
Victor Séjour is a writer and playwright responsible for writing the first known published piece of fiction by an African-American writer. It was a short story called The Mulatto and was published when Séjour was just 20. Even though he was born in the United States, the story was written and published in France. In fact, Séjour spent his whole working life in France.
Séjour was born in 1819 in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was during the time of slavery in the US but Séjour’s father, François Marcou, was a free black man. He was originally from Haiti but became an affluent businessman in New Orleans. Séjour’s mother was Eloisa Philippe Ferrand.
His parents were able to give him a good education in America. When Séjour was 19 he left the US for Paris in France to continue his education and begin a writing career. The Mulatto (Le Mulâtre in Séjour’s native French) was his first published work. It appeared in an abolitionist journal called the La Revue des Colonies in 1837.
The Mulatto is the story of a slave named George. His wife, Zelia, is the victim of an attempted assault by their master. She escapes the assault by hitting and injuring the master. Despite George’s pleading for his wife’s life, the master hangs Zelia and throws her coffin in a ditch.
George exacts revenge on his master by killing him. In his last breath, however, the master reveals he is actually George’s father. In despair at committing patricide, George kills himself.
The book’s slavery theme was the first and only time that Séjour covered this topic. In fact, he moved away from writing fiction completely to become a playwright.
This is not the only significant fact about The Mulatto, though. Not only was it the first work of fiction published by an African-American writer it was the only time Séjour explored the theme of slavery, it took 160 years for it to be translated into English – the first translation was published in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature in 1997.
Work as a Playwright
Initially, Séjour had considerable success as a playwright. His plays were mostly lavish costume dramas about European royalty and related themes. He started writing them in verse but achieved his biggest successes when he started writing plays in prose.
His first major play was The Jew of Seville – it was performed in the Comédie Française. For about the next 15 years he continued writing plays that were performed at the best venues in Paris. Some of them even had runs that lasted as long as six months. One of his most popular and well-known works was Richard III, a costume drama about the English King, Richard III.
By the 1860s, however, big costume plays were becoming less popular in Paris. As a result, Séjour’s plays were not as successful, and his personal popularity started to decline. This led to considerable financial difficulties in his later years.
He died in 1874 of tuberculosis in a hospital in Paris. He was buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.