A Voice from the Margin

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

C. L. R. James was the first major West Indian writer to publish in Great Britain, but he was much more than that. In his long life, 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 Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky during Trotsky’s exile in Mexico); a pan-Africanist (Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 1977); an original literary critic (Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, 1953, discusses the ship in American novelist Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick, 1851, as a factory or proletarian society ruled by the entrepreneur/Stalin-figure Captain Ahab); a nationalist politician (he returned from England to his native Trinidad in 1958 and briefly edited The Nation, 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 (his highly original 1963 book Beyond a Boundary is an argument for cricket as an art form and a discussion of the sport in its West Indian social context).

Despite his many and varied achievements, James is little remembered except by a rather small group of aficionados and fellow left-wing writers and activists. Much of his writing concerns doctrinal points of socialism, and some of his best and most original books (Beyond a Boundary, for example) had trouble finding publishers. He was not only a pioneer for younger West Indian and other black writers but also a prolific and original thinker and essayist. His best writing resonates with a palpable, infectious enthusiasm for ideas and argumentation. The range and quality of his writing qualify him to be included in the first rank of twentieth century intellectuals.

Historical Background

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

James was born into a middle-class black family in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in 1901. He was a precocious student. At the age of nine, he won a scholarship to the island’s most prestigious secondary school, Queen’s Royal College, from which he was graduated in 1918. His original ambition, to be a novelist, bore fruit with Minty Alley (published in England in 1936 but written in 1928), a partly autobiographical novel of Port-of-Spain street life in the same tradition as later West Indian fiction such as George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and the early novels of V. S. Naipaul.

Soon James discovered political and intellectual interests that took him away from fiction. Although he had contemplated and promised a sequel to Minty Alley, he never wrote another novel. He came under the influence of Captain Arthur Cipriani, a white Trinidadian labor leader. James’s biography of Cipriani was published privately in England in 1932, the year James emigrated there; parts were republished by Hogarth Press, the firm of novelist Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, as The Case for West Indian Self-Government in 1933.

In 1933, James joined the left-wing Trotskyist movement in England. That same year, he traveled to France, where he began research for his history of the Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804, which, he argued in The Black Jacobins (1938), was a harbinger of liberation movements to come in Africa and elsewhere. As he wrote with a characteristic touch of pride in a preface to the book’s 1963 edition, “In 1938 only the writer and a handful of close associates thought, wrote and spoke as if the African events of the last quarter of a century were imminent.”

He remained to the end ideologically a socialist, though eventually he broke with the orthodox Trotskyists. He was an early and eloquent anti-Stalinist, and a number of his essays deal with the ideological and historical complexities of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the internecine feuding within the Bolshevik Party. James’s socialism ultimately was based on a deep-seated belief in the political wisdom and good sense of the mass of ordinary people. This belief is in evidence as early as Minty Alley, the middle-class protagonist of which, writes Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall, “comes to understand what Trinidadian life is like by listening to ordinary people instead of by writing books.”

Writing on the Whole of Culture

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

James’s interests were too broad, and his intellect too supple and wide-ranging, for him to settle on a single topic or set of topics to write about. He wrote essays on literature (“Bloomsbury: An Encounter with Edith Sitwell,” “Whitman and Melville,” “Notes on Hamlet,”), history and contemporary politics (“Abyssinia and the Imperialists,” “From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro,” “Abraham Lincoln: The 150th Anniversary of His Birth”), the history and theory of revolutionary socialism (“Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity,” “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA”), African liberation movements (“The People of the Gold Coast,” “The Rise and Fall of Nkrumah”), and—one of his greatest loves and enthusiasms—cricket (“What Is Art?” from Beyond a Boundary, and “Garfield Sobers,” a profile of a prominent West Indian cricketer).

A major theme of James’s literary criticism is an insistence on the importance of the social and historical context of all literature. The American poet Walt Whitman “was caught and swept away by the grandeur of the national awakening in 1860, and to this day he achieved the heroic only in celebration of the Civil War and the victory of national union,” he writes in “Whitman and Melville” (1953). In the same essay, he calls Melville’s portrayal of Ahab “a masterpiece—perhaps so far the only serious study in fiction of the type which has reached its climax in the modern totalitarian dictator. . . . [Melville] saw the characteristic social types of his day and because he lived at a turning point, he saw also a characteristic social type of the age which was to follow.”

Even more sweepingly, he asserts in “Notes on Hamlet” that Hamlet’sposition, his training, his sense of duty, his personal affections and the spirit of his father, embodiment of the old regime—all are telling him what he ought to do. But he himself, his sense of his own personality, is in revolt, against this social duty. That in itself, however, would...

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Postcolonial Politics

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Throughout his life, James was concerned with the history, societies, and political prospects of peoples of African descent. His first important polemical essay was The Case for West Indian Self-Government, published as a pamphlet in England in 1933. In it he mercilessly skewers the English colonial class. “Bourgeois at home, he has found himself after a few weeks at sea suddenly exalted into membership of a ruling class,” writes James of the colonialist.Empire to him and most of his type, formerly but a word, becomes . . . a phrase charged with responsibilities, but bearing in its train the most delightful privileges, beneficial to his material well-being and flattering to his pride. Being an Englishman and accustomed to think well of himself, in this new position he soon develops a powerful conviction of his own importance in the scheme of things and it does not take him long to convince himself not only that he can do his work well—which to do him justice, he quite often does—but that for many generations to come none but he and his type can ever hope to do the work they are doing.

These surely were provocative words in the England of 1933. He goes on: “Always the West Indian of any ambition or sensibility has to see positions of honour and power in his own country filled by itinerant demigods who sit at their desks, ears cocked for the happy news of a retirement in Nigeria or a death in Hong Kong.”

In the same essay, James discusses the uneven rivalry between light-and dark-skinned black people in Trinidad. He takes to task local politicians of color, asserting that “sycophancy soon learns to call itself moderation; and invitations to dinner or visions of a knighthood form the strongest barriers to the wishes of the people.”

Anna Grimshaw calls “Abyssinia and the Imperialists” (1936) “an early acknowledgment of the importance of an independent movement of Africans and people of African descent in the struggle for freedom.” In “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA” (1948), James asserts: “On the question of the state, what Negro, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line, believes that the bourgeois state is a state above all classes, serving the needs of all the people? They may not formulate their belief in Marxist terms, but their experience drives them to reject this shibboleth of bourgeois democracy.”

“Abraham Lincoln: The 150th Anniversary of His Birth” (1959), published in the Trinidadian nationalist paper The Nation while James was its editor, celebrates Lincoln as a writer and visionary statesman, calling him “the champion of democracy, such a champion as it has rarely had in all its brief and troubled modern history.” He compares Lincoln’s speeches favorably...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Buhle, Paul. C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary. London: Verso, 1988. The first biography of James.

Grimshaw, Anna. The C. L. R. James Archive: A Reader’s Guide. New York: C. L. R. James Institute, 1991. An annotated list of James’s unpublished papers and manuscripts.

Henry, Paget, and Paul Buhle, eds. C. L. R. James’s Caribbean. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. A collection of mostly well-written and challenging essays by scholars of James and of the Caribbean, providing an extremely helpful biographical, historical, and theoretical base from which to approach an understanding of James. Stuart Hall’s and Selwyn R. Cudjoe’s biographical profiles of James are especially useful, as is Walton Look Lai’s history of Trinidadian nationalism.

James, C. L. R. The C. L. R. James Reader. Edited by Anna Grimshaw. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1992. A generous and accessible sampling of James’s essays and letters, including excerpts from several of his books. Much easier to find than other collections of James’s writing.

James, C. L. R. Cricket. Edited by Anna Grimshaw. London: Allison & Busby, 1986. A collection of James’s cricket journalism.

James, C. L. R. Minty Alley. Reprint. London: New Beacon Books, 1989. James’s only novel, still readily available in the United States.

Naipaul, V. S. “Cricket.” In The Overcrowded Barracoon. London: Andre Deutsch, 1972. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 1984. A contemporary review of James’s important, original book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, by another prominent West Indian writer.