American Civilization Essay - Critical Essays

American Civilization

C.L.R. James (1901-1989) is the twentieth century’s best-kept intellectual secret. THE C.L.R. JAMES READER (Blackwell, 1992) and several recent and forthcoming critical volumes (C.L.R. JAMES’S CARIBBEAN [Duke University Press, 1992] is excellent) have spawned a welcome James revival. The publication of AMERICAN CIVILIZATION should cement James’s reputation, half a century later than deserved.

Part of what defines a writer’s stature is the size of his topics and of his ambition to narrate or explain. James’s topics include the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, a crucial event in New World history (THE BLACK JACOBINS, 1938); Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK (1851) as a prototype of the modern totalitarian dictator (MARINERS, RENEGADES & CASTAWAYS, 1953); the place of cricket in the British Empire (the brilliant, semiautobiographical BEYOND A BOUNDARY, 1963); and national independence in Africa (NKRUMAH AND THE GHANA REVOLUTION, 1977). At least as a title, surely AMERICAN CIVILIZATION takes the cake.

James’s discussion, written with his usual boldness, great pride, and confidence, ranges from the idea of the pursuit of happiness, to the role of intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to labor unions and industry in the wake of World War II, to “Popular Arts and Modern Society.” AMERICAN CIVILIZATION originally was a prospectus James passed around in 1950 to a few colleagues for comment; it is published (with his permission) with few changes. His original intention is captured in the text’s delightfully Jamesian final sentence: “The whole is to be ruthlessly cut, quotations yanked out, written for the average person, in 75,000 words or less.”

James took American popular culture seriously in ways most American intellectuals still shun. Radio serials, he wrote (one could say the same about television shows of recent decades), “should be listened to and examined in the light of the fact that art has now assumed a very intimate relation to the daily lives of the great masses of the people.” James compares American popular culture to the work of ancient Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus. “The Greek masses went to the theatre as if they were going to the World Series, Independence Day and a film festival all combined,” he asserts.

The most fitting tribute present-day readers can give James is to read AMERICAN CIVILIZATION with the present moment in mind. Nearly fifty years after it was written, it remains wonderfully and frighteningly timely.