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Evangeline: A Fictional Character Who Gave Acadie its Second Wind

Elisa E. A. Sance, Ph.D. Student in History, University of Maine

Acadie disappeared from the map in 1713, with the signature of the Treaty of Utrecht, as the French colony officially fell into the hands of the British. The Acadians were called French Neutrals by the British at the time because they refused to take sides in the event of a conflict between France and the British Empire. They were deported shortly after during what is known today as the Great Deportation (1755-1762).  At the time, the Acadian people were only starting to build their own identity.[1] The Great Deportation that led to the dispersal of Acadians could have put an end to this people, if it weren’t for a strong attachment to their oral history, religion and traditions.

Joseph Yvon Thériault, in Evangéline, contes d’Amériques reminds us that works of fiction can play a role in the shaping of societies.[2] The poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie by American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has been that kind of idea for Acadians. Longfellow’s Evangeline was never intended to be something different from a poem dealing with typical themes of nineteenth century English literature: morality, fidelity, chaste love and the cruelty of war.[3] It is a love story and an ode to the beauty of nature as it exists throughout the young American republic. However, the choice Longfellow made to use Acadians who experienced the Great Deportation as main characters in his poem proved to be determining in the long run for North American collective imagination. The success of Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie drew a great deal of attention to the Acadian people at a time when the dispersed Acadian communities were looking for ways to bring their people together to foster a “Renaissance of the Acadian nation”. The Tale of Evangeline was published at just the right time and the interest it fostered for Acadians led to the acceptance of the virtuous Evangeline by the Acadian people as a symbol of their identity. Longfellow, to conclude his poem, wrote that Acadian women were telling the tale of Evangeline at night by the fireplace, already legitimizing his story as a part of Acadian folklore. Evangeline became a federative symbol of Acadian identity, despite its American origin.[4]

Evangeline, Van Buren, ME.

Evangeline, Van Buren, ME.

The name Evangéline, which was made up and not at all a traditional Acadian name, became suddenly trendy in Acadie. Numerous businesses were named after Longfellow’s character, including L’Evangéline (1887-1982) one of the few and at some points the only French newspaper in Acadie. Evangéline and her alter-ego in Louisiana, Emmeline Labiche, have become, since the publication of Longfellow’s Evangeline, a magnet to tourists of all nations who wanted to visit the places mentioned in their stories. Grand Pré in Acadie and St. Martinville in Louisiana both have statues of the heroine, as many tourist guides offer local additions to her original story.[5]

True Story of Evangeline by Felix Voorhies.

True Story of Evangeline by Felix Voorhies.

Since its literary birth, the myth of Evangeline has had great influence on the Acadian people, first as a means of reuniting its dispersed population during the Acadian Renaissance of the nineteenth century, then using her to impact the economy of Acadie, and especially through tourism. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, starting in the late 1960’s, Evangeline and her Victorian virtues were no longer matching the expectations of many Acadians in terms of promoting their identity. Acadians started to reject symbols such as Evangeline which presented a very old and rural vision of Acadians at a time when the Acadian population was more and more urban and no longer wanted to be associated with this Victorian ideal of a woman. Authors, such as Antonine Maillet and Gérald Leblanc, created new characters that would speak the language of the people and represent more accurately the Acadian society. They have worked to question and redefine Acadian identity as it was presented since the Acadian Renaissance. Midway through the twentieth century, people felt the need to promote characters who were true Acadians, such as in La Sagouine, Fanie and Pélagie-La-Charrette by Antonine Maillet, in an attempt to reclaim Acadian language, culture and history. This movement, led by artists, authors, songwriters, intellectuals and so on, is still ongoing today. Acadie even has a new hero since 2005: Acadieman, the first Acadian superhero. His creator, Daniel (Dano) Leblanc describes Acadieman as the official pirate of the French language: his superpower is to speak in a language with which young Acadians can identify.

Whether one chooses to embrace or reject the Evangeline myth, its heroine has been and will continue to be at the heart of Acadian identity. She will be celebrated by some, used as a tool to redefine or focus Acadian identity by others, in an open-ended creative process that leads to the search and definition of self.

 

Elisa E. A. Sance, “Evangeline: A Fictional Character Who Gave Acadie its Second Wind,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), September 17, 2014, http://khronikos.com/2014/09/17/evangeline-a-fictional-character-who-gave-acadie-its-second-wind/.


[1] Naomi Griffiths, The Contexts of Acadian History 1686-1784, McGill-Queen’s University Press (Montreal & Kingston, London, Buffalo, 1992), 33.

[2] Joseph Yvon Thériault, Évangéline: Contes D’Amérique. No ed. Montréal, Québec: Québec Amérique, 2013. 399.

[3] Naomi Griffiths, “Longfellow’s Evangeline: The Birth and Acceptance of a Legend,” Acadiensis XI, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 28–41.

[4] Barbara Le Blanc, “Evangeline as Identity Myth,” Canadian Folklore Canadien, Women & Tradition, 15, no. 2 (1997): 139–53.

[5] Barry Jean Ancelet, “Elements of Folklore, History, and Literature in Longfellow’s Evangeline,” Revue de Louisiane/Louisiana Review 11, no. 2 (Winter 1997): 118–26.

Image Credits:

Elisa Sance, “Evangéline, Van Buren, ME”, photograph, 2013.

Fogler Library, “Acadian Reminiscences”, photograph, 2014.

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