From Fri Aug 10 09:19:16 2001
From: Russell Grinker <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Embracing the Wisdom of a Castaway
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Date: Fri, 10 Aug 2001 06:19:48 -0400 (EDT)

Embracing the Wisdom of a Castaway

By Emily Eakin, The New York Times, 4 August 2001

Interned on Ellis Island and facing likely deportation, the Trinidadian critic C. L. R. James pinned his hopes for staying in the United States on a most unlikely source: Moby-Dick.

It was 1952. Anti-Communist sentiment was running high. And James, who had been in the country for 15 years leading a Trotskyist splinter group and writing political and cultural commentary, was viewed by the government not only as an illegal alien but also as a political subversive. While his lawyer set about trying to win his release through the courts (on the ground that he was not a member of Communist Party), James sat at a table in the Ellis Island detention center and for 12 hours a day over several months jotted down his insights into Herman Melville's epic tale about a ship's deadly pursuit of a great white whale.

The result was Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, a 170-page amalgam of brilliant critical analysis and desperate personal pleading. In James's reading, Melville's 1851 novel becomes a pointed allegory of cold war-era America in which the ship, the Pequod, is a stand-in for the mechanized world of the factory; the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, a ruthless corporate manager; the narrator, Ishmael, an impotent intellectual unable to thwart Ahab's totalitarian tendencies; and the ship's polyglot crew, an uncannily exact analogy for the nation's melting pot of workers.

Convinced that his timely analysis of one of America's most beloved literary classics would favorably impress the nation's leaders, he sent a copy of his manuscript to every member of Congress along with a request for $1 to put toward his legal defense.

In case his interpretive skills alone were not enough to sway the authorities, he appended a final chapter comparing his internment on Ellis Island to life on the Pequod and laying out his credentials for citizenship.

The ploy was a failure. James was kicked out of the country in 1953, and his book on Melville along with most of his other work—on subjects ranging from 18th-century Caribbean slave revolts and world revolution to comic strips, B-movies, pulp fiction and cricket—lapsed into obscurity.

But you would hardly know that from looking at scholarly bookshelves today. The publication of Mariners, Renegades and Castaways by the University Press of New England this summer—the first time the book has been printed in complete form in nearly 50 years—is simply the latest evidence of a major James revival now under way.

In the 12 years since his death in London in 1989, James and his work have inspired more than three dozen scholarly books as well as the founding of a C. L. R. James Journal. A new biography—the fifth since his death—has just appeared in Britain. And next month a couple of hundred James scholars and supporters are expected to congregate in Trinidad for a conference marking the centenary of his birth.

Of black thinkers influential in academe today, James has attained a stature now matched only by Du Bois, said Andrew Ross, the director of the American Studies program at New York University. That might seem an unlikely fate for a man who left Trinidad for London in 1932 with only a high school education and a short-term gig ghostwriting the memoirs of a West Indian cricket player.

Though he eventually became acquainted with writers like V. S. Naipaul (who depicted him rather unflatteringly as a character in A Way in the World) and Ralph Ellison (with whom he planned to start a literary magazine), as well as African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, James's sectarian politics and frequent use of pseudonyms ensured that he would remain unknown to a broader American public.

After his expulsion in 1953, he led an itinerant existence, migrating between London, where he lectured on Marxism and Shakespeare and covered cricket for various newspapers, and Trinidad, where for two years he edited the weekly paper of the pro-independence People's National Movement. Granted permission to return to the United States, he spent much of the 1970's teaching history at what is now the University of the District of Columbia and promoting the pan-African cause. By the early 1980's he was living in semiseclusion in a one-room flat in South London.

But his posthumous popularity makes sense. Just as he argued that Melville's novel is alive today as never before since it was written, James's work from more than 50 years ago neatly prefigured an impressive number of contemporary academic trends.

His first big book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), is now regarded as a founding text of postcolonial studies. Originally conceived as a play and staged in London in 1936 starring Paul Robeson, The Black Jacobins was a provocative analysis of the successful revolts led by the former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in the 1790's.

Showing how Toussaint L'Ouverture had been inspired by his readings of French revolutionaries, including the Declaration of the Rights of Man with its bold assertion that men are born and remain free and equal in rights, James argued that the abolition of slavery in the West Indies owed everything to the actions of the slaves themselves rather than to the direct intervention of enlightened Europeans. In doing so he anticipated one of the central strategies of postcolonial studies decades before the field took off.

As Edward Said, the Columbia University professor who helped found the field, put it: The Black Jacobins is really a study of how Western values are exported and made their own by the colonized people. Toussaint L'Ouverture read the Declaration of Rights of Man and said, ‘This applies to us, too.’

Similarly, in Beyond a Boundary (1963), his last major work, James described how cricket, a sport brought to the West Indies by the British, was not simply another colonialist imposition. As the skill of local players began to surpass that of their British counterparts, cricket, he argued, became as much a West Indian sport as a British one.

He was one of the very few critics who emerged from the third world in the 1950's and traveled throughout Britain and the United States generating what are now called post-colonial readings, said Donald E. Pease, a professor of humanities at Dartmouth College, who wrote the introduction to the new edition of Mariners, Renegades and Castaways.

James's writing was innovative in other ways as well. By focusing on society's ordinary and least powerful members—Haitian slaves, the Pequod's crew—he practiced what scholars now call social history, or history from the bottom up. By plumbing popular culture from comic strips to sports for political and historical meanings, he anticipated the basic method used by American studies and cultural studies scholars today. And as a lifelong anti-Stalinist, he had radical political credentials that were untainted by an attachment to Soviet-style Communism.

On that score, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways is something of a puzzle. James wasn't the first to find cold war imagery in Moby-Dick; other scholars had begun to contrast Ahab, as a symbol of Stalinist totalitarianism, with Ishmael, the democratic American and the voyage's only survivor.

James's twist was to argue that the totalitarianism was not simply a foreign threat. There were any number of potential Ahabs in the United States, he suggested. Ishmael, for example, was merely an intellectual Ahab, not the novel's hero. (That honor he reserved for the Pequod's anonymous crew, which he depicted as a society of men bound to one another through labor and a hopeful alternative to the totalitarian state.)

In his final chapter, James gets more specific. Explaining that he shared a room on Ellis Island with five Communists, he devotes nearly 10 pages to one of them, the group's designated leader, a man he calls M. After giving a detailed description of the man's kind actions on behalf of other inmates, he concludes with an apparent non sequitur:

You needed a long and well-based experience of Communism and Communists to know that M in reality was a man as mad as Ahab. . . . How many there knew that if . . . he were in charge of Ellis Island, he would subject both officers and the men he championed to a tyranny worse than anything they could conceive of?

This passage has been a point of contention among scholars. Was it a desperate attempt to curry favor with the government officials who could intercede on his behalf? Or an expression of genuine political belief? A 1978 edition of the book left the final chapter out, and a 1985 edition included it in slightly abridged form. Now, with the new complete edition, the debate may well go another round.

It's very, very big news in the James world that the book is being published, said Jim Murray, the founding director of the C. L. R. James Institute in Manhattan. It's the book of his that's been most in demand in the last 20 years, but no one has had it.