Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The 1992 award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the poet Derek Walcott and the mid-1980’s resurgence of interest in the critical and theoretical writings of C. L. R. James has given greater visibility to West Indian literature. Part of this effect is to draw attention to the important developments that have been made in West Indian fiction beginning in the 1960’s by such writers as Wilson Harris, Roy Heath, George Lamming, and V. S. Naipaul. These novelists not only reveal various aspects of the richly complex culture and history of the extensive colony formerly known as the British West Indies but also have brought home to white audiences some of the colonizers’ legacy. It is in the context of this development that Cambridge must be evaluated.

The comparatively small island population in the United States has not given rise to a distinctive Caribbean literary subset within African American culture. In England, however, Caribbean literature is of obvious importance, a fact stressed in the novel by Emily’s problematic embodiment of the values of the mother country. Caryl Phillips is one of the generation of black writers who, although reared and educated in England, retain a strong sense of attachment to the history and culture of their birthplace. The retelling of stories of empire from the standpoint of the colonized is an obvious act of cultural reclamation with various long-term repercussions, among which is the potential for a reevaluation of the purpose and prospects of the novel in England. Together with its considerable artistic merit, Cambridge is a particularly illuminating contribution to the kinds of intellectual and cultural reorientations that are central to contemporary literary debate.