Study Guide

C. L. R. James's Caribbean

by Paul Buhle, Paget Henry

C. L. R. James's Caribbean Analysis

C. L. R. James’s Caribbean (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

During his long life (1901-1989), C.L.R. James was a historian (his 1938 account of the Haitian revolution, THE BLACK JACOBINS, is a classic); a novelist (MINTY ALLEY, 1936); a leftist activist and thinker (he debated Marxist theory with Trotsky in Mexico); a Pan-Africanist (NKRUMAH AND THE GHANA REVOLUTION, 1977); an original literary critic (his 1953 book MARINERS, RENEGADES, AND CASTAWAYS discusses the ship in Melville’s MOBY DICK as a factory or proletarian society ruled by the entrepreneur/Stalin figure Ahab); a nationalist politician (he returned from England to his native Trinidad in 1958 and briefly edited the newspaper of the People’s National Movement during the island’s transition to independence, before breaking with his former pupil, prime minister Eric Williams); and a cricket enthusiast and journalist (BEYOND A BOUNDARY, 1963, is a discussion of cricket in its West Indian social context).

Yet despite his breathtaking array of accomplishments, and though one biography has been published (C.L.R. JAMES: THE ARTIST AS REVOLUTIONARY by Paul Buhle, 1989) and another is on its way (by Kent Worcester), James is little remembered. Perhaps because he was such a prolific intellectual, James is difficult to pigeonhole, hence inadequately recognized.

C.L.R. JAMES’S CARIBBEAN is a collection of mostly well written and challenging essays that set out to offer a biographical, historical, and theoretical base from which a reader can begin to comprehend James. Notable are Selwyn R. Cudjoe’s lucid biographical piece on James’s Trinidadian background, Paget Henry’s discussion of the Caribbean economic tradition, Walton Look Lai’s history of Trinidadian nationalism, an interview with the West Indian novelist George Lamming, and (first things first) a valuable portrait by Stuart Hall to open the book.

James’s work “has never been critically and theoretically engaged as it should be,” argues Hall. “Consequently, much writing on James is necessarily explanatory, descriptive, and celebratory.” C.L.R. JAMES’S CARIBBEAN is all three, yet it avoids being either fawning or superficial. Readers who find this collection rewarding and intriguing are urged to delve into THE C.L.R. JAMES READER (edited by Anna Grimshaw, 1992).