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.