Critical Context (Critical Guide to British Fiction)
The clear intention of Minty Alley was to show the working class in Trinidad—the porters, the prostitutes, and the domestics—at a time when such a picture was offensive to the European sensibilities of the upper and middle classes, white and black, of the Caribbean in the 1930’s. C. L. R. James, along with Alfred Mendes and Albert Gomes, sought to establish an indigenous West Indian literature which would not only reflect the life of most of the poor blacks on the islands but also would establish a literature reflecting a free and autonomous Caribbean, the political goal of James and his group.
Minty Alley was James’s first and only novel, though short stories such as “Triumph” earned for him international acclaim in the late 1920’s. In addition, James wrote a study of his favorite author, Herman Melville, while being detained on Ellis Island in the early 1950’s, (he was first a Trotskyite and then a Socialist), but he is best known for his political works. In his book Spheres of Existence (1980), he admits that his point of view has been very much shaped by his European education and that his fiction, too, has a European filter. Even though he is a black man writing about aspects of black life, his linguistic background is Western European and so is much of his philosophy. He claims that he had to leave the Caribbean in the 1930’s, for there, as a black man, he believed that he had little chance to be heard, to be published, and to effect a change in his native land. James avers that it was progressive elements in England which enabled him to come to prominence. After 1945, an even more “native” literature developed, written by those, according to James, not as influenced by Europe as he was. James and his group of literati called this new fiction “yard” literature, literature about the lives of the slum dwellers who lived in eighteen or so one-room units surrounding a central yard.
Yard literature is closer to the literature of Zora Neale Hurston in its attention to variety of dialect and individual detail and in its natural, nonmoralistic, nonpedantic approach than it is to Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, or Richard Wright. It is not mired in pessimism; the dice are not weighted; the people and their circumstances are left to stand for themselves.