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. 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.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. 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.