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...
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