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|Embracing the Wisdom of a Castaway
|The Left-Wing Critic C.L.R. James Is Inspiring an Enthusiastic
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
It was 1952. Anti-Communist sentiment was running high. And James, who had been in the
country for 15 years leading a Trotskyist splinter 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 Castaway: 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 18-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 unflattering 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
Nkrumath, 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 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
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, crickets, he argued, became as much a West Indian sport as a British
"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
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 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 totalitarianism state.)
In his final chapter, James gets more specific. Explain that he shared a room on Ellis
Island with five Communists, he devotes nearly 10 pages to one of them, 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 the 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
Eakin, Emily (2001, August 4). Embracing the Wisdom of a Castaway. The New York Times, pp.
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