“I am looking for a hero”

By F.S.J. Ledgister

John Hearne’s Life and Fiction: A Critical Biographical Study, by Shivaun Hearne
(Caribbean Quarterly, ISBN 9789764102533, 130 pp)

John Hearne

John Hearne, c. early 1960s. Photograph courtesy Shivaun Hearne

My first encounters with West Indian literature occurred in 1969, when I read Ismith Khan’s novel The Obeah Man and John Hearne’s Land of the Living. Khan’s evocation of Trinidad was very different from the Jamaica in which I lived, but Hearne’s fictional Cayuna was very much like it. I was, eventually, to read all of Hearne’s novels, and to know the man himself, as he was my teacher at the University of the West Indies; nonetheless, the experience of seeing his fictive Caribbean island through the eyes of the expatriate Holocaust escapee Stefan Mahler was something that I, as an immigrant to Jamaica, have never forgotten.

Hearne, a middle-class, light-skinned, mixed-race novelist, has been rather neglected in recent years, largely because the characters of his novels were, like himself, mainly light-skinned and middle-class. Unlike other pioneers of the Anglophone Caribbean novel, he was not a writer of black or East Indian self-assertion. His characters were people who had flourished under the old order, and who were accommodating themselves to the new.

Hearne’s younger daughter, Shivaun, has now given us a literary biography, an examination of his life and work together, that is a reworking of her MA thesis originally completed in 1999, four years after her father’s death. This is a labour of love within the meaning of the act, as John Hearne was wont to say, and a worthy tribute to its subject. Its publication fourteen years later gives us a chance to reconsider Hearne’s work, and provides us with a useful background to the production of his novels and stories, as well as to the three popular “confections” that he wrote together with his friend Morris Cargill, under the pseudonym of John Morris, about the deeds of a fictional Jamaican secret service and its dashing agents Robin Blackmore and Jassy Vane.

In her introduction, Shivaun Hearne states that her father’s novels are not among the West Indian novels currently in the academic literary canon, and that they are now out of print. The latter statement, at least, is happily no longer entirely true. Hearne’s first novel, Voices Under the Window, was reprinted by Peepal Tree Press in 2005.

The monograph begins with an account of Hearne’s birth in Canada, and his childhood and education in Kingston. Hearne was an underage Royal Air Force volunteer with dreams of glory in 1943, at not quite seventeen, and on his way to training in Canada was shocked at his encounter with American racism: “There were no shades of black and white as existed in the West Indies and he recognised that he was almost an interloper on the white side of the divide.” Hearne experienced guilt at access to places from which his fellow West Indian volunteers who were a shade or so darker were barred.

In Canada, while in training for the RAF, Hearne became fast friends with another young mixed-race West Indian trainee, Roy Augier, who was to go on to a distinguished career, which — like Hearne’s — involved the Mona campus of UWI. Shivaun Hearne passes swiftly over her father’s wartime service before recounting his first marriage and then the affair that ended it, and became his long second marriage.

In trying to patch up his first marriage, Hearne returned to Jamaica and began teaching. He also joined the nationalist intellectual circle around Edna Manley and befriended Roger Mais and Derek Walcott, but after two years he moved to Britain to teach and write. In this first creative period, during which he was producing Voices Under the Window, Hearne published his earliest stories and poems. He lived in London, Paris, and the south of France with Roger Mais while the latter was succumbing to the cancer that ended his life, and while T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber read the manuscript that was to become Voices, launching Hearne’s literary career.

Voices describes the life of Mark Lattimer, a light-skinned mixed-race politician, in flashbacks as he lies dying as the result of a riot in downtown Kingston. His biography, in some respects, parallels Hearne’s, and some scenes in the book, including one critical scene in which a young Czech woman dramatically declares her willingness to die for the people, were taken from the author’s own life-experience.

Shivaun Hearne is quite correct in saying that Voices “was written for Mais,” and written under his influence. Decades later, John Hearne was to speak of Mais as his mentor and quote his dicta as guides for young writers in his creative writing class at Mona. She captures the fact that the protagonist of the novel, Mark Lattimer, contains autobiographical elements and yet is a much more committed figure than Hearne was himself. The novel was a critical success, and won Hearne the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize — the first time the award was won by a West Indian writer.

Subsequently, Hearne oscillated for a while between England and Jamaica while producing his four Cayuna novels (Stranger at the Gate, The Faces of Love, The Autumn Equinox, and Land of the Living). It was not until late 1961 that Hearne definitively moved back to Jamaica. The Cayuna novels focus on protagonists who are from the upper class or upper middle class, white or mixed-race, and adjusting to the changes of the pre-independence period. Shivaun Hearne quotes her father’s journal from the period of the Cayuna novels: “in all my work,” he wrote, “in everything I write, I am looking for a hero. I am trying to make a man.” She notes that some characters are projections of himself, while others are founded on Mais. Hearne romanticises the plantation, a life to which he himself was not born, but is also, as she notes “deeply critical of the plantocrats of the old order.”

Hearne’s presentation of the racially divided society of Jamaica and the wider Caribbean does not seek to apologise for the divisions of race and class, his daughter contends. Rather, it seeks the common humanity of the shared experience. As she puts it:

Hearne does not seek absolution for the crimes of his (or [his character Carl] Brandt’s) ancestors, but brings to the foreground the timeless pain felt on all sides. As a result of his emphasis on love, loyalty, and morality, he has been judged as lacking concern for the issues and problems of West Indian society on the brink of independence. His dismissal on these grounds rules out any appreciation of his real achievement in creating a more complex portrait of that society.

That is a neat, and fundamentally accurate, summation. John Hearne’s Cayuna was very much the Jamaica of the 1950s, with — as was pointed out to me a long time ago — Green Stripe instead of Red Stripe beer, and an elite slowly realising that its place in the new order was not what it had been in the old order.

And there are significant elements in the Cayuna novels, as Shivaun Hearne makes clear, that draw on Hearne’s family history and biography. The novels themselves are founded on Jamaica’s or the Caribbean’s actual history in the 1950s. The rise of the bauxite industry and the emergence of parliamentary government form part of their background.  So too do revolutions, real or imagined, in the neighbouring countries of Saint Pierre (Haiti) and Navidad (Cuba). The last of the Cayuna novels, Land of the Living, involves an interracial relationship set against the background of the emergence of an Afrocentric religious movement, the Sons of Sheba (Rastafari), and an armed revolt which seeks to mobilise them against the decolonising democracy — very much patterned on the Claudius Henry Affair of 1960. Hearne’s characters were mainly men and women who, like himself, were light-skinned and remote from the mass of poor Jamaicans, but still in sympathy with their demands for change.

Responding to critiques by Sylvia Wynter and Frank Birbalsingh, Shivaun Hearne argues that they misread her father’s work, and that the milieu which he describes, unpopular (in more than one sense of that word) though it may be, is a very real part of West Indian society. I’d say she’s right.

She also describes Hearne’s activities in the early 1960s, both in Britain and Jamaica, mentioning her own birth in passing, and Hearne’s affiliation to the Creative Arts Centre at UWI, Mona. In the late 60s, she notes, Hearne began to be afflicted by depression, and self-medicated with alcohol. Over the course of the 60s and 70s, his teaching, journalism, and political involvement cut into his creative writing. He had from the 1950s been associated with the People’s National Party, and had been a close friend of Michael Manley, but in 1977 he very publicly broke with the PNP and with Manley personally.

This had the odd effect, Shivaun Hearne points out, of releasing his creative capacities after several years in the doldrums, and allowing him to work on his last novel, The Sure Salvation, set on an illegal slave ship in 1860. This was his favourite of all his novels.

After The Sure Salvation he worked on at least one other manuscript, and did engage in journalism, teaching, and travel, but Hearne was also ill and under psychiatric care. He was diagnosed with manic depression, and rallied for a while, but retirement in 1992 left him, as seems to happen in such cases, very much at a loose end — though when I interviewed him in October 1992, he was quite lucid about events some decades earlier — and his decline thereafter was swift. At the end, his daughter states, “he felt he had no reason to continue living.”

Shivaun Hearne concludes that her father’s novels were the products of his Jamaican upbringing tempered by life abroad. In his old age, “he had retreated to the comfortable position of a stereotypical old colonial [but] he was much more than that stereotype.” To anyone who saw Hearne in his heyday, wearing his panama hat, and bearing a ginger RAF handlebar moustache, he certainly looked like a parody old-colonial Colonel Blimp type — especially when he opened his mouth and an RP accent uttered forth. But he was a writer of the Americas, as he himself insisted, and as Shivaun Hearne points out. His metaphor for the Caribbean experience was that we were the children of Crusoe, an idea he developed alongside the Cuban writer Roberto Fernández Retamar’s well-known metaphor of Caribbean people as the children of Caliban (itself derived from José Enrique Rodó’s earlier description of Latin Americans as the hijos de Ariel; Shakespeare knew not what he wrought in The Tempest).

Shivaun Hearne has begun the task of reclamation of an important pioneer of West Indian literature. That she has also written an honest and fair appreciation of a difficult man is a true tribute to her father.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2013

F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought, and a digital collection of poems, Mango-Red Leaves.