Study Guide

George Lamming

George Lamming Essay - Critical Essays

Lamming, George (Vol. 144)

Introduction

George Lamming 1927-

(Full name George William Lamming) Barbadian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Lamming's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, and 66.

Lamming is one of the most highly regarded contemporary Caribbean writers. His works about the decolonization and reconstruction of the West Indies following the end of British colonial rule are commended for their nationalistic spirit and poetic prose style. Lamming's writing focuses on finding new political and social identity and the long-lasting effects of early colonialism on the minds and actions of the Caribbean people. His use of allegory and metaphor give deeper political meaning to stories of people newly freed from the oppression of colonial rule. Lamming's writing style is experimental, often containing circular plot structures and abrupt shifts in narrative. Through his direct confrontation of old colonial rule and his inventive writing style, Lamming has become a groundbreaking writer who has paved the way for younger Caribbean authors.

Biographical Information

Lamming was born in Barbados in 1927, and has witnessed and participated in much of the social and political upheaval that has taken place in the West Indies during his lifetime. Throughout the 1930s, rapid population growth, widespread economic depression, and the shift from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrial one profoundly altered traditional Barbadian village life. Trade unions became an effective political force and organized labor led the drive for political reform, ultimately resulting in the Barbadian independence movement. All of these factors had an impact on Lamming's life and are reflected in his works. As a child, Lamming attended Roebuck Boys School and earned a rare scholarship to Combermere High School. In 1946, he left Barbados and traveled to Trinidad, where he worked at El Collegio de Venezuela as a teacher. During this time, he met several important Trinidadian writers including Clifford Sealy and Cecil Herbert and published poetry in literary magazines. In 1950, Lamming moved to England where he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation and as a journalist while pursuing his own literary career. He quickly established himself as a writer and an intellectual. His first two novels, In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and The Emigrants (1954), were successful and well received. In 1955, Lamming visited the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship, serving as a writer-in-residence at the University of Texas. In 1956, he was a participant in the first international Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. In 1957, In the Castle of My Skin received the Somerset Maugham Award for Literature. Lamming returned to the Caribbean and became involved in various political causes, including the movement for Barbadian independence, which was achieved in 1966. He published two novels, Of Age and Innocence (1958) and Season of Adventure (1960), and a book of essays, The Pleasures of Exile (1960), in rapid succession. In 1962, he received a Canada Council Fellowship; in 1967 he was a writer-in-residence at the Mona, Jamaica, campus of the University of the West Indies. After a twelve-year hiatus, he published two more novels, Natives of My Person (1972) and Water with Berries (1972). In 1975, Lamming was a writer-in-residence at the University of Dar-es-Salaam and the University of Nairobi. In 1976, he was awarded a British Commonwealth Foundation grant, a traveling fellowship that took him to major universities in India and Australia. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Connecticut, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and the University of North Carolina. He has also acted as the director of the fiction workshop at the University of Miami's Summer Institute for Caribbean Creative Writing. Lamming remains associated with educational and cultural projects of the Barbados Workers' Union and the Barbados Labour College while dividing his time between England, the Caribbean, and the United States.

Major Works

Lamming's first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, is generally regarded as an important novel of decolonization and a national classic of West Indian literature. Set on the fictional island of San Cristobal, the story follows a male protagonist, identified only as G., from childhood to adolescence. The story concludes with G., at the age of eighteen, preparing to leave San Cristobal to pursue his education abroad. Drawing heavily on his own childhood experiences, Lamming relates the story of G.'s growth into manhood amid the political and social upheaval of the 1930s and 1940s. In Lamming's second novel, The Emigrants, he explores the massive post-World War II migration of West Indians to Great Britain. His story focuses on a group of emigrants who travel by ship from the Caribbean to England, a place they have been taught to believe is culturally superior to their native islands. Once settled in their new environment, the emigrants discover a lack of welcome, disillusionment, and a feeling of alienation; they subsequently long for home. Lamming's next novel, Of Age and Innocence, features characters who return to San Cristobal after living in England. Two of the protagonists, Mark and Isaac, react differently to being reunited with their homeland. Mark has difficulty readjusting to life in San Cristobal and is confused, whereas Isaac becomes obsessively involved with overthrowing colonization and establishing a new political and social structure. Of Age and Innocence shows race and age relations on the island and the long-lasting effects of colonialism. In his fourth novel, Lamming furthers his writing of rebellion and social change, as well as adding a cry for West Indians to reclaim their African roots in order to restructure their society. Lamming's next work, The Pleasures of Exile, is a collection of essays that gives further evidence of his nationalistic sympathies. The essays challenge both the values and beliefs that colonizers have imposed on the native populations, and the assumption that European colonization is superior and brings civilization to indigenous cultures. In 1972, Lamming published two novels almost simultaneously: Water with Berries and Natives of My Person. In Water with Berries, Lamming uses plot elements from Shakespeare's The Tempest as the basis for a profound examination of the colonial experience. In the novel, three artists, Derek, Roger, and Teeton, leave the West Indies and travel to England for enlightenment and opportunity. Like the exiles in The Emigrants, their quest for fulfillment ends in failure, disillusionment, death, and imprisonment. The false affection for colonization gives the exiles a misplaced trust that leads to their downfall. Natives of My Person focuses on slave traders of the sixteenth century. The novel reconstructs the voyage of the ship Reconnaissance, which is led by a character known as the Commandant. To atone for his past cruelties and barbarism, the Commandant plans to establish a Utopian society on the island of San Cristobal. The enterprise fails for many reasons: fighting amongst the crew, loss of interest, greed, and an inability to erase the past. The novel argues that an ideal society cannot be built by those who have committed moral atrocities and unnecessary bloodshed in their past.

Critical Reception

While In the Castle of My Skin was considered an immediate Caribbean classic and was highly praised, Lamming's succeeding novels have met with mixed reviews. Most critics find Lamming's novels to be important postcolonial literature, but some have difficulty with Lamming's writing style. The use of multiple characters and abrupt shifts in narrative have been derided by some as a sign that Lamming's works lack form and cohesiveness. However, others have praised this and see these shifts as a form of allegory for the confusion and upheaval in the lives of the West Indians. Generally, reviewers agree that Lamming is most successful with autobiographical themes, citing In the Castle of My Skin as an example. Lamming continues to be lauded as one of the most important literary voices of the postcolonial West Indies.

Principal Works

In the Castle of My Skin (novel) 1953

The Emigrants (novel) 1954

Of Age and Innocence (novel) 1958

The Pleasures of Exile (essays) 1960

Season of Adventure (novel) 1960

Natives of My Person (novel) 1972

Water with Berries (novel) 1972

Conversations: George Lamming: Essays, Addresses and Interviews, 1953-1990 (essays and interviews) 1992

Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II: Western Education and the Intellectual (essays) 2000

(The entire section is 55 words.)

Criticism

Times Literary Supplement (review date 15 January 1972)

SOURCE: “Symbols Ahoy,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,693, December 15, 1972, p. 1,521.

[In the following review, the commentator voices his displeasure with Lamming's circumlocutory writing style.]

Ostensibly, Natives of My Person is about a voyage undertaken by a slave ship, the Reconnaissance, which sets sail from Europe during the seventeenth century in defiance of the law and with a few ulterior motives rankling in the breasts of captain and crew alike. Beneath this story—and not all that far beneath—lies an historical lesson, a political theory and a network of emotional paradigms; and the notion of those barely hidden depths is given...

(The entire section is 325 words.)

Helen Tiffin (essay date October 1979)

SOURCE: “The Tyranny of History: George Lamming's Natives of My Person and Water with Berries,” in Ariel, Vol. 10, No. 4, October, 1979, pp. 37-52.

[In the following essay, Tiffin examines the underlying themes of enslavement and empowerment in Lamming's Natives of My Person and Water with Berries.]

I had felt the wind rocking me with the oldest uncertainty and desire in the world, the desire to govern or to be governed, rule or to be ruled forever.

Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock

In the West Indies a concern with the slave past and the disorienting effects of...

(The entire section is 5853 words.)

Helen Tiffin (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Freedom after the Fall: Renaissance and Disillusionment in Water with Berries and Guerrillas,” in Individual and Community in Commonwealth Literature, University Press, 1979, pp. 90-8.

[In the following essay, Tiffin explores the interactions among characters in Lamming's Water with Berries and V. S. Naipaul's Guerrillas.]

In A House for Mr. Biswas V. S. Naipaul in what now seems to have been an aberrant moment of optimism, pointed the way to a West Indian self acceptance and hence a personal freedom to legitimize the achieved political one. As Robertson has observed, in post-colonial literatures the pattern of the Edenic myth...

(The entire section is 3882 words.)

Carolyn T. Brown (essay date Winter 1983)

SOURCE: “The Myth of the Fall and the Dawning of Consciousness in George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 30-43.

[In the following essay, Brown studies the autobiographical aspects of the character “G” in Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, giving special consideration to the effect that Lamming, writing as an adult with an adult perspective, has regarding the awareness and experiences of a child.]

In 1958 George Lamming wrote that the modern black writer's endeavor is like that of “every other writer whose work is a form of self enquiry, a clarification of his relations with other...

(The entire section is 4550 words.)

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date Spring 1985)

SOURCE: A review of The Pleasures of Exile, in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 307-08.

[In the following review of the reprinting of Lamming's The Pleasures of Exile, Dasenbrock laments that the book has not aged well and finds it to be bitter and illogical.]

I am a little perplexed as to why Allison & Busby, George Lamming's British publishers, would issue this reprint of his only work of nonfiction, published initially in 1960, for its has not worn well in the intervening twenty-five years. I hesitate to use a more precise term than “work of nonfiction,” as The Pleasures of Exile is, among other things, part...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

George Lamming with Frank Birbalsingh (interview date 12 November 1985)

SOURCE: “George Lamming in Conversation with Frank Birbalsingh,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1988, pp. 182-88.

[In the following interview, conducted November 12, 1985, Birbalsingh and Lamming converse about African and Caribbean literature and the effects of national experience on a writer.]

[Birbalsingh:] Let me start with a general question about the place of Africa in Caribbean consciousness. In the 1950s we had many colonial hang ups, and Africa was a place that all West Indians—including those of African descent—were very mixed up about. Since then we've had many commentators, in particular Edward...

(The entire section is 3067 words.)

Avis G. McDonald (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘Within the Orbit of Power’: Reading Allegory in George Lamming's Natives of My Person,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1987, pp. 73-86.

[In the following essay, McDonald examines the symbolic representations contained in Natives of My Person.]

In the last few decades there has been a resurgence and re-evaluation of allegory both as a practised form in creative writing and as a critical technique in literary theory. To use a current cant word, the valorization by Goethe and Coleridge of symbolism over allegory signalled, if it did not cause, a long eclipse of allegorical writing. At least in critical writing this eclipse...

(The entire section is 6159 words.)

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date Autumn 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Natives of My Person, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, p. 669.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock admires Lamming's attempt at the blending of historical fiction and allegory, but finds that Lamming's narrative fluctuates too often between the two genres to be considered a successful novel.]

Natives of My Person, a 1971 novel now reprinted by Allison & Busby, is certainly George Lamming's most ambitious and probably his most significant work to date. It is above all an attempt to come to grips with the peculiar history of the West Indies, peculiar not just because most of its inhabitants were brought there...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

George Lamming with Paul Buhle (interview date 25 November 1987)

SOURCE: “C. L. R. James: West Indian George Lamming Interviewed,” in C. L. R. James's Caribbean, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 28-36.

[In the following interview, conducted by Paul Buhle on November 25, 1987, Lamming discusses C. L. R. James's writing and the effect it has on other West Indian writers, including Lamming himself.]

[Buhle:] Can you describe [C. L. R.] James's influence on you and the other West Indians in England during the 1950s?

[Lamming:] I think that his friendships among West Indians in England were pretty general. He had a seminar thing, a generation who used to go to Staverton Road, and who were...

(The entire section is 3752 words.)

Joyce E. Jonas (essay date Spring 1988)

SOURCE: “Carnival Strategies in Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin,” in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 346-60.

[In the following essay, Jonas examines the essence of the “Trickster” and shows the instances of this imaginary creature presiding over Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin.]

West Indian novelist George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin takes its title from a couplet in Derek Walcott's juvenilia:

You in the castle of your skin
I the swineherd.

Walcott here invokes a conventional romance situation—unattainable mistress and infatuated, self-denigrating admirer—with the added pungency of...

(The entire section is 7780 words.)

Michael G. Cooke (essay date January 1990)

SOURCE: “The Strains of Apocalypse: Lamming's Castle and Brodber's Jane and Louisa,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 28-40.

[In the following essay, Cooke studies the effect gender has on the tone of a “coming of age” novel written by a Caribbean writer. In the Castle of My Skin is written from the male standpoint, whereas Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home is written from the female point of view.]

George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin is self-consciously built around three apocalyptic scenes: the opening flood; the prolonged episode of the heroic fisherman at the “other side”...

(The entire section is 5501 words.)

Neil ten Kortenaar (essay date April 1991)

SOURCE: “George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin: Finding Promise in the Land,” in Ariel, Vol. 22, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 43-53.

[In the following essay, ten Kortenaar discusses his displeasure with In the Castle of My Skin, finding fault with Lamming's wordiness, insufficient character development, and lack of plot cohesiveness.]

Sandra Pouchet Paquet in her authoritative book on the novels of George Lamming analyzes In the Castle of My Skin as a sociological and political study of Barbados. She finds that the narrative reproduces the historical process whereby a feudal mercantilist economy gave way to a capitalist market economy. But in...

(The entire section is 4158 words.)

Gordon Rohlehr (essay date August 1992)

SOURCE: “Possession as Metaphor: Lamming's Season of Adventure,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 5, Nos. 1-2, August, 1992, pp. 1-29.

[In the following essay, Rohlehr examines the political metaphors and instances of allegory in Season of Adventure.]

The tendency to employ ecstatic possession as metaphor of the descent into the unconscious mind of the individual and the group, has become quite common in both Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American literatures. Texts such as Brathwaite's The Arrivants, Scott's An Echo in the Bone, Toomer's Cane, Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Salkey's A Quality of Violence and...

(The entire section is 11950 words.)

Peter Hulme (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Profit of Language: George Lamming and the Postcolonial Novel,” in Recasting the World: Writing after Colonialism, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, pp. 120-36.

[In the following essay, Hulme examines the reworking of Shakespeare's The Tempest in many of Lamming's works.]

The colonial situation is a matter of historical record. What I'm saying is that the colonial experience is a live experience in the consciousness of these people. And just because the so-called colonial situation and its institutions may have been transferred into something else, it is a fallacy to think that the human-lived contents of...

(The entire section is 6905 words.)

Margaret Kent Bass (essay date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: “‘Whirling out of the Dance …’: Three Autobiographies Written in Exile,” in Griot, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 42-6.

[In the following essay, Bass finds many similarities among American Richard Wright's Black Boy, South African Ezekiel Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue, and Caribbean George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin despite the different nationalities of the writers.]

In Metaphors of Self James Olney says, “It is the great virtue of autobiography as I see it to offer us understanding that is finally not of someone else but of ourselves” (x). However, what we can expect to understand about ourselves is not...

(The entire section is 3398 words.)

Roosevelt Williams (essay date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: “Mothers and Their Defining Role: The Autobiographies of Richard Wright, George Lamming, and Camara Laye,” in Griot, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 54-61.

[In the following essay, Williams compares the strong mother figures in Wright's Black Boy, Laye's The Dark Child, and Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, and analyzes their effect on the lives of their children.]

The autobiographies of George Lamming. Richard Wright and Camara Laye have much in common with many other autobiographies which have emerged out of the European tradition. They share with other writers of the autobiography a common intention, which is to make themselves...

(The entire section is 6034 words.)

Viney Kirpal (essay date April 1997)

SOURCE: “George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin: A Modern West Indian Novel,” in Ariel, Vol. 28, No. 2, April, 1997, pp. 103-14.

[In the following essay, Kirpal defends In the Castle of My Skin in light of Neil ten Kortenaar's negative critical review (Ariel 22:2 April, 1991). Kirpal evaluates the novel from a different perspective and finds it to be a worthwhile political/social endeavor and a complex work of fiction.]

Doubt about the merit and stature of postcolonial literary texts—rather than their paucity—is the factor that most likely discourages many Departments of English in India and elsewhere from formally introducing them into...

(The entire section is 4342 words.)