Humanism for all ages
By Nicholas Laughlin
The Nobbie Stories for Children and Adults,
by C.L.R. James, ed. Constance Webb
University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 0-8032-2608-X, 119 pp
In 1938, C.L.R. James arrived in the United States for what was meant to be a short lecture tour. Captivated by the energy of American society, he stayed fifteen years, long after his visa ran out. By then, he had personal links to the US: in 1949 he married Constance Webb, a young activist and actress, and in 1949 their son, C.L.R. Jr., nicknamed “Nobbie”, was born. But the authorities finally caught up: James departed the US for London in 1953, leaving his family behind.
Of course, he wrote them many letters — weekly, Webb says. And those to Nobbie took the form of short fables, in which an Aesopian cast of characters communicate the ideals James wished for his boy: “loyalty, honesty, integrity, courtesy, generosity, respect for fellow humans, and appreciation of the natural world.” Thirty-seven of them survive. When Webb died in 2005 she was in the late stages of editing The Nobbie Stories, drawing on her store of memories to write a brief note on each one, filling in the biographical context.
As a children’s writer, James drew equally on Alice in Wonderland and pre-war pulp comics, but The Nobbie Stories are also grounded in their author’s experience as a radical political organiser. Bruno the Bulldog, Leo the Lion, Moby Dick the whale, Philbert and Flibert the twin fleas, Lizzie the Lizard, Peter the Painter, with his bohemian beard, and (my favourite) Nicholas the Worker are all members of the Club, which seems to be part neighbourhood gang, part revolutionary cell. The Club is “a republic, and everyone can say what he likes” — so much so that in one story it appears the town authorities wish to shut it down for “sedition.” But the key characters are a pair of little boys, Good Boongko and Bad Boo-boo-loo — representing the better and naughtier sides of Nobbie himself, no doubt. The Club members are a noisy bunch, constantly arguing and telling stories. Into their debates James incorporates all sorts of edifying knowledge — about Ancient Greece, Renaissance Florence, the situation in Hungary, Ghanaian independence — and solidly humanist left-wing opinions. And when it turns out that Boongko isn’t always well-behaved, and Boo-boo-loo too is capable of good deeds, James communicates something of the grey-shaded complexities of human nature as well.
This sounds like heavy stuff, especially since Nobbie was only four when the stories began. But, as ever, James’s prose is vigorous and clear, and it’s fascinating to see him — who excelled at so many literary forms — trying his hand in an unexpected medium. Most of all, The Nobbie Stories remind us how much of James remains unpublished or uncollected. Let’s hope someone does something about that soon.
Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.