Edgar Mittelholzer

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Edgar Mittelholzer (MIHT-uhl-hohltz-ur) was born in New Amsterdam, Guyana (it was then British Guiana), in 1909 to William Austin Mittelholzer and his wife, Rosamond Mabel Leblanc. He later liked to stress his cosmopolitan origins as “an offshot of a Swiss-German plantation manager of the eighteenth century as well as of a Frenchman from Martinique and an Englishman from Lancashire—all in collaboration with a few of the African slaves.” Though he had a fair complexion and straight hair, his father regarded him as “a swarthy baby.” This parental disdain is elaborated in Mittelholzer’s autobiographical work, A Swarthy Boy. His father’s attitude toward miscegenation was one of the major psychological irritants to which Mittelholzer had to adjust; it manifested itself in the subject matter and thematic bases of his novels and in his personal life. As if to compensate for paternal disapproval, the son committed himself to a search for fame and affection elsewhere. Barno, as Mittelholzer was known to his intimates, took an active interest in cricket while a student at Berbice High School. He decided upon writing as a career and published a pamphlet, Creole Chips, a collection of dramatic and prose pieces of about 250 words each that offers a variety of comic vignettes of everyday life in Guyana and that might have become something more like V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street (1959) if attempted somewhat later. Seven of the short pieces had been published in a local newspaper; when they had been augmented, Mittelholzer peddled the booklet to householders. (Somewhat earlier, in two months during 1929, Mittelholzer had written a novel called “The Terrible Four,” but it—like so many of his later works—was rejected by publishers). Briefly, he tried his hand at poetry, and in 1941, an eight-page poem, “Colonial Artist in Wartime,” was printed. Though it is very uneven in quality, it does contain an indication of a fundamental concern when it asks rhetorically whether love rather than hate “will sprinkle on our souls the dew of calm.” This theme pervades all of his later fiction.{$S[A]Woodsley, H. Austin;Mittelholzer, Edgar}

In the same year Corentyne Thunder, which had been accepted two years earlier by a publisher who went bankrupt, was issued by Eyre and Spottiswoode, an established London publishing firm, and this success heartened Mittelholzer, for he had by this time become rather depressed by the constant rejection of his work. In December, 1941, he joined the Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve; in March of the following year, he married Roma Halfhide, a Trinidadian. In August, 1942, he was discharged on medical grounds and made Trinidad his home for the next five years, during which he wrote “For Better Things,” a novel intended for the American market but also rejected.

In 1947 Mittelholzer left Trinidad for London, where he revised and expanded “For Better Things” while working for the British Council as a copy typist. It was shown to Leonard Woolf, whose Hogarth Press published it as A Morning at the Office. For many readers, it is the quintessential Mittelholzer novel, an apparently casual depiction of the complicated social and racial relationships prevailing in West Indian societies; yet it is also a detailed sociological analysis of the effects of racial status on personality. The effects of the success of A Morning at the Office were several: Mittelholzer’s literary reputation was established, he was encouraged to even greater invention and output, and he stimulated the exodus of writers from the West Indies to London.

Children of Kaywana , a novel of considerable power and the first volume of a historical saga, received mixed reviews, yet it was an indication that Mittelholzer was more than a facile teller of lightly comic Caribbean stories. The author decided to become a full-time writer and (with support from a Guggenheim Fellowship) moved first to Canada and then to Barbados to continue the...

(The entire section is 1,158 words.)