George Lamming

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

George William Lamming is one of the distinguished West Indian writers who came to prominence in Great Britain during the 1950’s. He is perhaps the most political writer of his generation. Born on June 8, 1927, Lamming spent his boyhood in a small village, Carrington, a few miles from Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. At the age of ten, he witnessed riots in Bridgetown occasioned by the deportation of a Trinidadian union organizer. He attended Roebuck Street Boys’ School and won a scholarship to Combermere High School, where Frank Collymore, a teacher and editor of the influential literary magazine Bim recognized and encouraged his literary talent. His first efforts were poems, which he has continued to write occasionally. His early poems were regularly read on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Caribbean Voices. Many of his boyhood and adolescent experiences are fictionalized evocatively in In the Castle of My Skin.

After high school, Lamming immigrated in 1946 to Trinidad, where he taught high school. Beginning to feel as confined as he had felt in Barbados, however, he immigrated to England in 1950. If in the Caribbean he was aware of the consequences of colonization, in Great Britain he discovered the problems of black immigration. He initially worked in various factories, but soon became involved in a weekly literary review program for the BBC. With his first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, which won high praise, he established himself in the literary world of London. The following year, with the publication of The Emigrants, he became a professional writer; thereafter, he traveled widely on various awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was at this point considered a most promising West Indian writer.

In 1958 he published Of Age and Innocence. He had spent several months in the Caribbean gathering material for this novel, which, like his first, has a Caribbean setting. A trip to Africa sharpened his awareness of the African roots of many aspects of West Indian culture and tradition, a perception that worked its way into Season of Adventure, in which he censures characters who are hesitant to embrace their African past. This novel appeared in 1960, the year Lamming also published his collection of essays and memoirs, The Pleasures of Exile.

During the next twelve years, Lamming held positions in universities in the United States and the West Indies. He published a few scattered poems, short stories, and essays. No major work appeared until the 1972 publication of Water with Berries and Natives of My Person. Lamming subsequently took up several other positions as lecturer and writer-in-residence at universities in Europe, India, Africa, Australia, and the United States. In the late 1970’s he made Barbados his home and became active in public relations for the Barbados Workers’ Union. Lamming continued to write essays and journalistic pieces on Caribbean social and political issues, with which he would continue to be deeply involved.

Lamming’s novels are all concerned with the consequences of Caribbean colonialism. His first four novels, taken together, constitute a sociopolitical account of the evolution of the West Indies from the colonial days (In the Castle of My Skin) and mass migration to Great Britain in the 1950’s (The Emigrants), through the last days of colonialism and the beginning of independence (Of Age and Innocence) to the postindependence period (Season of Adventure). This sociopolitical progression is not simply the backdrop of Lamming’s novels; it is his central concern. Most of his protagonists represent particular sociopolitical responses. In Lamming’s next two novels, Water with Berries and Natives of My Person, which again take up colonialism, emigration, and exile, he employs the allegorical mode and portrays characters as allegorical figures. Natives of My Person marks a new phase in Lamming’s perception of the colonial-imperial experience: With a larger, all-embracing vision, he explores the experiences of not only the colonized but the colonizer as well.

In the Castle of My Skin has received lavish praise for its lyrical prose, its evocation of Barbados rural life, and its scintillating portrayal of West Indian boyhood and adolescence; it is considered a West Indian classic. This unanimous praise, however, is denied Lamming’s later novels. Some see his later novels as complex and compact, others as confused and diffused. Some consider his prose richly lyrical; others describe it as thick, slow-moving, and portentous. Some believe that his form and prose demand too much of the reader; others, such as Gerald Moore, blame the reader for demanding too little of him. Despite this qualified reception of Lamming’s later work, however, In the Castle of My Skin has continued to attract both general and academic readers.

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