Windrush moderns

By Brendan de Caires

Migrant Modernism: Postwar London and the West Indian Novel, by J. Dillon Brown
(University of Virginia Press, ISBN 9780813933931, 256 pp)

Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics, by Peter J. Kalliney
(Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199977970, 336 pp)

una marson and other writers at the bbc

Una Marson (seated at centre) with T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, and other writers in a BBC studio, 1942

Poised in the silence of a BBC studio, a memorable 1942 photograph shows an elegantly dressed woman seated at a table, arranging her typescript for a broadcast. T.S. Eliot sits next to her, the fingers of his right hand flexed in what may be a hint of impatience. George Orwell half-crouches over the back of Eliot’s chair. Across the table stands a young William Empson — perhaps the most influential literary critic of the century — perched above two other writers who are readying themselves for a reading. When you realise the central figure in this tableau, the woman shuffling papers next to Eliot, is Una Marson — Jamaican poet and feminist, producer of the BBC’s West Indian Programme and later its groundbreaking Caribbean Voices — the long overdue critical interest which this period of cultural cross-fertilisation is now receiving seems inevitable. (Others seated at the table include M.J. Tambimuttu, editor of Poetry, and the Indian writers Mulk Raj Anand and V.K. Narayana Menon.)

The photograph adorns the cover of Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters, an authoritative survey of Modernism’s meanings for key postcolonial writers, but it also foreshadows much of what takes place in Migrant Modernism, J. Dillon Brown’s account of how canonical West Indian writers — named the Windrush generation after the ship that brought the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to Britain — appropriated the technical and aesthetic breakthroughs of the High Moderns (Eliot, Joyce, Pound, et al) for their own cultural and political ends.

Kalliney and Brown both invoke the idea of a “cultural field” — taken from French scholar Pierre Bourdieu — to chart British Modernism’s impact on the margins of its former empire. In Brown’s gloss, this is “the array of institutional structures through which culture, in a given social grouping, comes into being, including [in Bourdieu’s phrasing] ‘not only the direct producers of the work in its materiality (artist, writer, etc) but also the producers of the meaning and value of the work — critics, publishers, gallery directors, and the whole set of agents whose combined efforts produce consumers capable of knowing and recognising the work of art as such.’”

Brown contends that the fictions of George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, Samuel Selvon, and Roger Mais can be read as a “strategic engagement with Modernist forms,” and he argues, persuasively, that Modernism’s “self-reflexive, counter-discursive impulses migrated into the very foundations of Anglophone Caribbean fiction.” He reads Windrush novels with a close eye on how they were shaped, and framed, by literary London’s “producers of meaning,” and he annotates some of the complex interactions which these cultural negotiations entailed.

London’s literary squabbles produced alliances that, at first glance, seem surprising. Wary of the Movement writers who were gradually pushing them offstage, several British mandarins — notwithstanding their unfamiliarity with, and periodic condescension towards, non-white foreigners — welcomed the arrival of cultural sophisticates like Mittelholzer and Lamming. The newcomers were seen as allies in a rearguard action against upstarts like Kingsley Amis, head of a group whose cultural convictions, in Brown’s telling phrase, were “proudly philistine, aggressively nationalist, and anxiously concerned with the changing dynamics of class (not race) within Great Britain proper.” Seen in this context, Brown argues that the Windrush writers offered “an important alternative strain of Modernist practice, different from and far less pessimistic than the inward-turning late Modernism posited by critics such as Tyrus Miller and Jed Esty.”

Brown sees the ambivalence of the Windrush group — partial heirs to Modernism, but also, thanks to the nightmare of History, perennial outsiders in the metropole — as “a complicated mixture of reverence for the literary tradition of England and animosity (enhanced by the racism encountered on arrival) towards the Imperial attitudes such a tradition continued to underwrite.” Keeping this double focus in view, his close readings of the resulting fictions show how extensively the Windrush authors deployed Modernist devices to articulate nuanced responses to various social and political questions — often in ways that literary critics have overlooked, or chosen to ignore.

In A Morning at the Office, for instance, Mittelholzer’s interest in “the very material weight of historical circumstances” leads him to endow inanimate objects with Joycean “backstories” (reminiscent perhaps, had critics been willing to entertain the comparison, with parts of the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses). Brown argues that these narrative digressions place an “emphasis on the burden of inherited sociocultural conditions . . . and problematises any naive hopes of the tolerant comity to come.” A closer look at the chosen objects — a key, a door, and a nib — reveals that

all have overt connections to colonialism and racism . . . The key is initially described as “one manufactured by Petersen & Jason of Coventry,” highlighting the role of British manufacturing in the colonies, while the nib has been carelessly left in the office the night before by a white English overseer meeting with the head of accounting, Mr Murrain. The door is notable for having a scar that results from a cutlass fight in 1923 caused by a British sailor who insults a Trinidadian by calling him a “bloody nigger” and dismissing “black nytives — every blimed one o’ you dusky tropical blokes.”

Taken together, the objects’ hidden histories reveal a “present minutely linked to the colonial past.” Intriguingly, each item reappears in the second half of the book “recapitulated in new events taking place in the narrative present.” Brown argues that Mittelholzer uses this “telescopic objectivity” to

illustrate the heavy determining effect of the past and its traditions of behaviour and thought, yet also [to] point out how acts of empathy and imagination may serve to alter, however minutely, the familiar materials of the past into something better and more humane.

Other chapters offer comparable insights. Lamming’s self-consciously “difficult” style

can be read as an assertive literary-political gesture aimed at preserving a West Indian (racial, political, cultural) difference while countering an English exoticism that tended to read West Indians as simple, unthinking (and unworking) residents of a tropical paradise. In this reading, the category of (Modernist) outsider functions to allay the threat of assimilation, while the invocation of a highly intellectualised cultural tradition (Modernism) strategically disrupts, on several levels, the dismissive reduction of West Indian artists to simple, natural creatures of merely anthropological interest.

Later, in The Pleasures of Exile, Lamming will clarify these aims with the memorable assertion that “the language of modern politics is no longer Prospero’s exclusive vocabulary. It is Caliban’s as well” — and he will add that “the time is ripe — but may go rotten — when masters must learn to read the meaning contained in the signatures of their former slaves.” Selvon, less assuredly, aims at something similar in An Island Is a World, using a quasi-Joycean local/global shift of perspective to “sidestep the simplistic stereotypes of West Indian guilelessness” that characterised the reception of his first novel, A Brighter Sun.

Mais, who receives the most extensive analysis in the book, can be seen wrestling with D.H. Lawrence’s theory of fiction, particularly the idea that novels “properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life, for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.” Brown’s meticulous reading of Mais’s fiction suggests that after starting from a “Lawrence-inspired philosophy of literature as a sensually transfigurative mechanism for eliciting social change, [the] novels self-reflexively examine their own medium of (artistic) language, ultimately investing less and less value in the literary and finding moral foundation, somewhat paradoxically, in the everyday and the palpable.”

Peter Kalliney’s analysis has a wider focus — historically, geographically, and politically — and it covers issues that faced black American writers like Langston Hughes, hybrid figures like the Jamaican-American Claude McKay, and African writers like Chinua Achebe and Amos Tutuola. Kalliney seems to have sifted through everything relevant to his subjects — including voluminous private correspondence — with an eagle eye, and his revisionist claims for the postcolonial afterlife of the Modernist idea of “aesthetic autonomy” seem unanswerable. (The autonomy Kalliney has in mind is what drives Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus to declare that he will “fly by” the nets of “nationality, language, religion” which Ireland flings upon its citizens’ souls at their birth.)

After elucidating C.L.R. James’s defense of how the British ideal of “fair play” offered West Indian cricketers the opportunity to transcend their historical and political circumstances, Kalliney extends the insight to include the cultural and literary institutions which are his theme. He argues that “in the context of the late colonial and early postcolonial period, insisting on the autonomy of the arts functioned as a way to preserve the politically charged character of intellectual competition.” In a fascinating survey of early collections of black writing, he shows that, “compared to their white colleagues,” black anthologists “all claim[ed] to reject sentimentality and rhetorical excess in favor of ruthless objectivity and spare diction” — classic Modernist attitudes.

Kalliney shows the enduring attractions of this intellectual independence for a wide range of black and postcolonial writers. For one thing, it fed their longing for an audience that would read them “simply as artists, not as artists circumscribed by the pernicious logic of racial difference.” He argues that “aesthetic autonomy” is indispensable to a proper understanding of postcolonial literary history, and he offers compelling evidence of its value to writers as diverse as Achebe, Wilson Harris, Lamming, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and V.S. Naipaul, each of whom, at some point, defends “the need for creative autonomy against racially instrumental forms of art.”

Even scholars who are willing “to reconstruct fragments of the copious dialogue between white and black modernists . . . have tended to depict white and black as aesthetics in opposition to one another.” Instead, Kalliney shows how “white and black, metropolitan and late colonial variants of Modernism shared cultural institutions, collaborating on a project to rework the doctrine of aesthetic or economy in the middle decades of the century.” In fact, aesthetic autonomy ends up being defended most vociferously by “nonwhite writers from colonial regions” in that period.

Kalliney is refreshingly sceptical towards received ideas of literary history. He suggests, provocatively, that “the conventional reading of high Modernism as an expression of aesthetic autonomy may be a slight misinterpretation of the period: it was black writers who were most eager to assert the autonomy of culture and politics.” In fact:

As the European Modernist institutions were re-fitted for new contexts, they began to incorporate and assimilate black writers who were in many respects perfectly adapted to join ranks with their white colleagues. This institutional retooling, in part, helped Modernist networks survive World War II and adapt to the 1950s with an expanded base of support from colonial intellectuals . . . The search for coalitions with black intellectuals was facilitated by very compatible commitments to the principle of aesthetic autonomy, but it was simultaneously restricted by the question of whether conscious political engagement could enhance or dilute intellectual freedom.

Kalliney makes a fascinating argument for revaluing one of the key defenders of this artistic freedom, the Barbadian poet and scholar Edward Kamau Brathwaite, as a sort of latter-day F.R. Leavis. Although the two seem utterly incompatible at first blush (the Cambridge don was infamously indifferent to the political undertones in a literary text), Kalliney makes his case well. Beneath Leavis’s defence of the Great Tradition, Kalliney notices a “literary sociology [whose primary function is] to examine the complexity of the literary marketplace and to define the status of the intellectual within it or against it.” Mutatis mutandis, Brathwaite — who “often complains of the predatory distraction wrought by tourism on the Caribbean’s economy” — clearly shares this concern. Kalliney also shows that he shares Leavis’s impulse to rescue literature from the stifling grasp of academia, and the belief that authentic folk language will keep literary forms from losing their creative force.

Revealingly, given his close association with Brathwaite, Kalliney shows that Ngũgĩ “is perhaps even more unsparing in his attacks on Imperial capitalism in the African context.” Like Leavis before them, both men believe “it is the responsibility of the intellectual not only to contest these forces in the political arena, but also to bring this position to bear on the problems of literature and cultural production.” Kalliney notes that in Ngũgĩ’s polemical 1968 declaration “On the Abolition of the English Department” (now a canonical postcolonial text)

The great English tradition is overvalued because it does not meet current local needs — not because it is intrinsically imperialist in content. The document’s implicit claim that “this is worth more than that, this rather than that is the direction in which to go, that the centre is here rather than there” comes directly from Leavisite articulations of the critic’s main responsibilities, merely translating the emphasis on evaluating particular texts into a general cultural proposition in which indigenous literary forms assume priority over their European counterparts. The African tradition “is worth more” than the European tradition because it speaks to the current situation of Nairobi’s students; the great English tradition cannot form the centre of an East African education because it does not contain the fundamental building blocks of cultural consciousness in the region.

Provocatively, Kalliney also argues that “the paradoxical belief that English is a discipline both hopelessly racist and yet capable of registering the richness of racial and cultural difference is one of the unacknowledged legacies of Leavisite thinking in postcolonial studies.”

In the book’s most absorbing chapter, Kalliney recounts Faber and Faber’s unorthodox promotion of the work of Amos Tutuola, whose 1952 novel The Palm Wine Drinkard became an overnight literary sensation. Deliberately avoiding its usual publicity, Faber ensured that early reviewers remained ignorant of Tutuola’s lack of a literary pedigree, gambling that their prestige would overwhelm doubts about his competence, and serve to heighten the exoticism of his strange style.

After a brilliant analysis of the novel’s early reception — it baffled and thrilled most metropolitan critics in equal measure — Kalliney homes in on the book’s perplexingly depthless characters. Drawing on an essay by the anthropologist Robert Armstrong, a specialist in the aesthetics of primitive cultures, he argues that Tutuola’s “flat” people — much like Wilson Harris’s in later years ­­— have been stripped down because “in the netherworld of the bush, subjectivity has been annihilated by the immediacy of physical and psychological torture.” He continues:

To place this observation in the context of genre, Drinkard becomes the outstanding anti-bildungsroman of late colonial literature. The narrator and the other human characters never seem to learn any valuable lessons about themselves and the world into which they have stumbled; there is no growth of consciousness, no moment of recognition or disillusionment or self-affirmation. Instead of tracking the maturation of a highly individualised, complex character to render an analogy for an emerging national consciousness, Tutuola’s early work flattens his human and monstrous characters alike in a representation of perpetual underdevelopment.

Kalliney’s gift for explaining a wealth of complex information is evident throughout the book. He is scrupulously detailed when staking out his claims, but he also knows when to stand back and present an overview. Pondering the enigmatic narrative of Tutuola’s Bush of Ghosts, he writes:

Rather than force the narrative into the shape of an allegory about the struggle for independence, we might begin to see the novel’s eccentric cast of characters as a collective system of refracted commentary on the chronic underdevelopment of the colonial economy. The distorted, exaggerated, asymmetrical relationships typical of colonial underdevelopment find a formal analogue in the stunted, flat, superdimensional characters of the bush. Indeed, the novel reverses the conventional fictional hierarchy of character over setting by making the bush function as the site of intense particularity, otherwise absent from the text. Instead of pitting character against character, or even protagonist against an inhospitable environment, the narrative subordinates the centrality of the protagonist’s struggles to the imaginative reclamation of colonialism’s political and economic margin: the bush.

Elsewhere, Kalliney offers an engaging account of the origins of Heinemann’s African Writers Series and brilliant analysis of the curious entanglement of local politicians with the African literati who critiqued them. Another chapter traces the evolution of Jean Rhys’s sympathy towards black West Indians — rising and falling as her literary fortunes fluctuated. Rediscovered after a long period of obscurity, Rhys came to envy the success of writers like Naipaul, Walcott, Achebe, and Ngũgĩ — who seemed to have become fashionably exotic at the exact cultural moment that she, as a white West Indian, had become unfashionably marginal to the emerging body of postcolonial writing. In the end, although she remained “a firm believer in the cultural autonomy of colonial peoples,” the experience of being on the wrong side of literary fashion had made her “rather less enthusiastic about the prospect of political self-determination and majority rule in the Caribbean.”

It is hard to read these books without a tinge of nostalgia for the days when West Indian writers rose so impressively to the challenge of establishing themselves, and their homelands, in a competitive metropolitan literary culture. As Brown and Kalliney repeatedly show, notwithstanding the inevitable compromises which publishing abroad entailed, the Windrush authors — and their African and American counterparts — often produced work that was far more complex than most contemporary critics would allow. Today, as literary historians revisit the postwar legacies of high Modernism, it has become increasingly clear, to repurpose Lamming’s quip, that “the time is ripe — but may go rotten” when we ourselves would do well to re-read the fictions of these literary pioneers with greater respect for their aesthetic, cultural, and political sophistication.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2015

Brendan de Caires was born in Guyana and now lives in Toronto. He has worked as an editor for various publishers, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, the Stabroek News, and the Literary Review of Canada. He is programmes and communications co-ordinator for PEN Canada.