Edgar Austin Mittelholzer: A Caribbean voice (Part 2)

Juanita Cox is a PhD student writing her thesis: ‘Edgar Mittelholzer and the Shaping of his Novels’ at the University of Birmingham, UK.  Her interests include Caribbean literature, culture and history and a version of this article will be appearing as a chapter in a book, Caribbean Voices, soon to be published.  She is also currently working on an introduction to Corentyne Thunder, Mittelholzer’s first novel, which is due to be republished in 2009. She has lectured in Caribbean Studies at the London Metropolitan University.

By Juanita Cox

With his novels becoming the subject of critical attention and scrutiny, Mittelholzer played an inadvertent but key role in the evolution of West Indian literature in a number of important ways.  By way of exemplification, it would be useful to consider the review of Mittelholzer’s My Bones and My Flute, which was broadcast in November 1955.  Whilst not disputing Mittelholzer’s undeniable skills as a novelist; his representations of local colour or dialect, V S Naipaul noted that he could not “find much West-Indianess in Mittelholzer’s work” by which he meant “Mittelholzer’s characters [could] fit in anywhere”.  This for Naipaul contrasted with the characters in novels such as In the Castle of my Skin and A Brighter Sun, which “could belong to nowhere but the West Indies”.  Naipaul, with his usual insightfulness, went on to remark:

…I don’t think it is hard to see why…the professional West Indian novelist tends to loose his West-Indian-ness.  The books he has read are the books of England and American and European writers…   His imagination is naturally conditioned by the films he sees and the books he reads.  So with the professional West Indian writer we have the danger of art following art, not art following life.i

Edgar Austin MittelholzerAs a key protagonist at a pivotal stage in West Indian literary history, Mittelholzer’s novels sometimes became the prototype of what not to write; in this particular case helping to inform the growing consensus that West Indian writers should endeavour to produce material that was uniquely West Indian in character.

The value of these reviews can be deduced from an observation that V S Naipaul made in a later programme:
One can learn a lot from all writing – perhaps more from bad writing than from good – and I learned a lot from Caribbean Voices. / …I became very careful and very worried about everything I wrote.  I learned to avoid certain themes.ii

Indeed it is puzzling to note, as Tobias Döring has highlighted in Caribbean-English Passages (2002)iii, that no-one has for example considered the influence of Mittelholzer’s With A Carib Eye (1958) – particularly its critical reception – on Naipaul’s The Middle Passage (1962).  The short interludes between the publication of both travel journals, their discursive similarities and the related cultural positions of both authors, must surely raise some interesting insights into Mittelholzer’s influential role as a literary figure in the Caribbean.  That aside it can surely be argued the reviews of Mittelholzer’s novels, whether good or bad helped, in the absence of an already established literary tradition to shape the material his counterparts later produced.

Less than five months after leaving Barbados to resume residency in the UK, Mittelholzer once again (October 1956) became directly involved in the BBC’s Caribbean Voices; this time taking over the role of programme editor/presenter, from V S Naipaul.  These programmes which span October 1956 to June 1958 took on a variety of forms.  However, in the majority of cases the programmes were divided into two halves; the first presenting one or two short stories (dependent on their length) followed by a selection of verse and read by Caribbeans who were based in the UK: e.g., Andrew Salkey, Gordon Woolford, Ulric Cross, Ellsworth Keane, Karl Hudson Phillips, V S Naipaul and Pauline Henriques. Oftentimes Mittelholzer would intersperse these readings, with a critical discussion based on the perceived merits of the works in question.  It is worth pausing here to take note of Mittelholzer’s approach to editing the programmes:

Choosing the stories for “Caribbean Voices” can sometimes prove an extremely difficult task.  Should a badly written story be broadcast?  And note I say written, for many a story that reaches us here is excellent in content-matter, but fails in literary technique and grammatical composition.  Such stories are hard to reject, for it is in content-matter that a writer truly reveals his talent.  Literary technique, and even grammatical composition, may be brushed up in the process of time, but if a writer lacks imagination to infuse into his work, the solid qualities of a good tale – meaning narrative, characterisation and atmosphere above all – then the most polished literary style…will not raise his work out of the rut of the drab and uninspired.iv

In bestowing greater importance on creative imagination than grammatical composition or literary technique, Mittelholzer’s programmes notably included material which other forums of literary expression might otherwise have rejected.   Whilst he occasionally addressed the ‘failings’ of some these works, it is significant that in the main, Mittelholzer was careful to offer words of encouragement.

Having observed that his own novels were often the subject of varied and contradictory reviews, Mittelholzer tended to end his critiques by noting that the listeners of Caribbean Voices needed to come to their own conclusions about the merits of any particular reading.  These critiques are worthy of mention since some provide illuminating insights into issues that unsettled him.  While, for example, Mittelholzer offers a positive review of Samuel Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight, he went on to state in a programme transmitted in February 1958:

…it is a sad thing to relate that the public in this country is being schooled into expecting [West Indian’s to write stories] that treat only of crude, loud-mouthed, uninhibited characters all of whom are dubbed West Indians (though many people are inclined to call West Indians Jamaicans, as though they all originated in Jamaica).  This attitude is encouraged by the newspapers and magazine publishers as well as by television people, and it is fast becoming the popular thing to depict West Indians as loose, pleasure-loving individuals, absolutely feckless, as the Irish and Welsh are supposed to be.  And, of course, it must be amply shown how fond they are of calypsos and steel-bands and of cutting ridiculous figures wherever they venture, whether in a bus or in Hyde Park or in Oxford Street.  The writer who tries to depict his West Indians as a normal, decent, well-be-haved [sic] person will eventually starve, for editors won’t be interested in his creations.v

Whilst Mittelholzer saw nothing inherently wrong with writing about certain aspects of West Indian society, he nevertheless felt deeply uncomfortable within the context of 1950s Britain, about literary material or cultural practices which appeared to nurture or intensify white racial prejudice and notions of West Indian primitivism.  Having been subject to regular bouts of humiliating maltreatment by his Negrophobe father on account of his swarthy complexion,vi Mittelholzer was acutely sensitive to the pernicious presence of race ideologies not just in the Caribbean (the legacies of which he explores in novels such as The Life and Death of Sylvia and A Morning at the Office) but also across the globe.   This awareness was reflected in his determination never to set foot in places like the southern states of America or South Africa: for as he once remarked in his characteristically blunt (and in today’s terms, ‘politically incorrect’) manner: “I should not relish being insulted by barbarian inferiors with pink skin.”vii

Mittelholzer’s attitude and personal thematic rejection of folk/peasant culture (and towards the end of his career, Caribbean settings/characters) can perhaps be better understood if we consider some of the reviews of his early novels.  In The Observer, Mittelholzer’s first published novel, Corentyne Thunder (1941) is for example described as a “brilliant and relentless study of primitives” whilst the Manchester Guardian describes it as a “direct portraiture of…rather primitive yet appealing…people”.viii  Since Mittelholzer had apparently hoped to highlight the universality of the human condition as well as draw parallels between British Guianese and European society by making explicit references to extraneous texts such as Moliere’s L’Avare (The Miser), the play upon which Corentyne Thunder is partially inspired, he undoubtedly felt aggrieved when the critics labelled his characters, “primitive”.   Mittelholzer’s sensitivity to Western racial prejudice clearly provides some indication as to why he felt driven to write a novel about coloured middle society (i.e., The Life and Death of Sylvia):

We’ve been looked upon too long as “natives” and for once and all, I want to have the truth out, I want the English and Americans to realise that there are coloured “natives” out here who can be just as educated and refined as they can be… [; at the same time] all our failings and foibles will be pictured without bias.ix

Ironically despite again drawing a clear link between Georgetown’s middle-class cliques with the dysfunctional middle-class characters of John Galsworthy’s Swan Song, the reviews remained similarly blinkered:

[The novel, The Life and Death of Sylvia,] shows what happens when the laws of the jungle are replaced by the codes of the suburbs, and it portrays with grimness the lives of coloured people whose worship of ancestral ju-jus has changed into keeping up with the Jones.x

Mittelholzer was indeed so obviously angered at the injustice of the Western perceptions, that he includes the above quote in With A Carib Eye (1958), and goes on to make the assertion that the critic of Time Magazine clearly knew nothing about the Caribbean since they – “negroes and coloured” alike – had been civilised for at least as long as Americans.

Mittelholzer’s desire for Caribbeans to be accepted as a ‘civilised’ equals was rooted not only in the self-proclaimed belief that “human character [was] basically … the same everywhere in the world”xi but also in the conviction that since the “strongest cultural influences [in the region had] been European”, it was ignorant of the West to perceive them as being ‘primitive’.   What this latter assertion also points to however is that as a member of New Amsterdam’s coloured middle-class society, he had broadly accepted the Western world’s definition of ‘civilisation’ and had in turn internalised notions of their cultural supremacy.

Thus whilst he attempted to subvert notions of Caribbean primitivism, he paradoxically became increasingly unable to envisage the validity of developing folk cultural practices and in particular those which were African-derived.xii In an article which appeared in the Trinidad Guardian in 1945 he, for instance, argued that; if matters were left up to him calypsos would continue to be regarded “as in years past, as calypsos, and just calypsos – not as masterpieces of music equal in grandeur, to the Eroica or Gotterdammerung”xiii.

Despite these views it is interesting to note that a short journalistic piece that he published in 1947, A Carnival Close-Up, represents one of the earliest depictions of carnival to be broadcast via Caribbean Voices.

This suggests that Mittelholzer, particularly when we taken into consideration novels like Corentyne Thunder, A Morning at the Office, Sylvia and the Kaywana Trilogy, had recognised the importance of providing for the region documented records of the regions socio-cultural past and present.   However, whilst A Carnival Close-up, does for example attempt to offer an objective/detached portrayal of the Trinidad carnival and observes that “Everybody is in a bubbly, light-hearted mood”, the narrator’s use of particular words are nevertheless reflective, through connotation, of the views which Mittelholzer had earlier expressed in the Trinidad Guardian.  Apparently lacking by implication any sophistication, the steel bands “clatter”, “clang”, “clash” and “thump” while Old Masque revellers (who are a “straggly group”) “pranced and tramped and hopped”.xiv  Irrespective of his personal standpoint, it is within the context of this article perhaps more important to appreciate that in terms of his relationship with Caribbean Voices, and Caribbean literature in general, Mittelholzer believed very strongly in the rights of each individual to express their own personal concerns and preoccupations.  As he once observed:

…it is the complex nature of [Caribbean] social origins, and the conflicting loyalties involved in the scheme of…race, class and economic status, which dictate that each must tread his own lone-wolf path of literary expression.xv

This awareness seems to have allowed Mittelholzer to put aside his personal ambivalence surrounding the evolution and development of folk culture, calypso and Anancy stories specifically with respect to the material that was selected for transmission.  As the transcripts reveal he not only invited key figures like the playwright Errol John to share his personal views on the importance of calypso to the region, but also regularly featured stories of the aforementioned type as a matter of course, never failing to pour praise on those, like Andrew Salkey’s Anancy and The Ghost Wrestler’s, or Stanley Brown’s Pocomania, which he felt were well written, entertaining and/or insightful.

There can be no doubt furthermore that he shared with his editorial predecessors a sincere desire to nurture, help and inspire other aspiring writers.  By drawing on his own experiences as a professional writer, Mittelholzer was able to contribute to Caribbean Voices in unique way.  Like other aspiring writers and listeners of the programme, he knew what it felt like to believe very strongly in the quality of the work he produced and in turn how it felt to be rejected by prospective publishers.  In remarking that he had often regretted there hadn’t been amongst his acquaintances a “brutally honest critic” to tell him what was “wrong” with his work and why it was unlikely to be considered by a publisher, it is possible to surmise that his views (whether negative or positive) were aimed not at deflating aspiring writers but rather at helping them to achieve their hopes of becoming published authors.  Mittelholzer invited, for instance, David Farrer, the Director of Secker & Warburg and Innes Rose, head of John Farquharson’s literary agency to offer advice to “those young men and women in the West Indies dreaming of literary fame”xvi, particularly on the subject of how to get published, the benefits of employing a literary agent as a medium and on the type of stories that were currently in vogue.  In a bid to provide variety and maintain the interest of listeners Mittelholzer also importantly invited the Grenadian writer/researcher, Edward Scobie to share with listeners insights into the lives of Caribbean figures such as Ignatius Sancho: an ex-slave who, born in British Guiana waters in 1729, later became the owner of a bookstore in London and a man of letters.   Other programmes recalled the contribution of writers such as Alfred Mendes, H G De Lisser, Eric Waldron and C L R James; focusing not just in the case of the latter on his literary efforts but also on his non-fictional work, The Black Jacobins.

Apart from the historical interest these programmes must have generated, they arguably demonstrated that if early pioneers had succeeded in pursuing their literary ambitions despite a less favourable socio-political climate, there was little excuse for modern-day Caribbeans to be discouraged by the relatively fewer obstacles that faced them.

In the interests of employing literature as a tool of integration, Mittelholzer was additionally careful to ensure, not only that he selected material from a broad range of writers across the region but also that all ‘racial’ groups and ‘classes’ were, where possible, represented. In the case of stories which treated of minority groups such as Claude Thompson’s Mr Wu Contemplates Peace and Edward Scobie’s The Return of the Carib, Mittelholzer offered listeners a potted history which located them firmly within the Caribbean.

This was clearly for the benefit of those territories whose listeners were less aware of the extent of racial diversity in places such Trinidad and Guyana.  The content of his programmes arguably represented Mittelholzer’s hope, as a person of mixed ancestry, that the literary culture of the West Indies would develop along inclusive lines, taking into account the rich and full racial/class diversity of the region.   Conscious additionally of the problems of producing, publishing and distributing literary journals within the region, Mittelholzer also importantly used Caribbean Voices as a forum through which to promote Frank Collymore’s BIM, noting in one particular programme that:

BIM is the one magazine in the Caribbean area which has rigidly upheld the policy of publishing only what measures up to the best, by universal standards, in creative literature.  BIM’s attitude has never been; for the West Indies, this is good enough.xvii

Interestingly Mittelholzer never makes any other direct references to other literary journals.  Whether this was a reflection of the dearth of literary journals and that fact that some like Focus were not consistently in production, it is arguably the case that as a close friend and admirer of Collymore, Mittelholzer may have been more biased towards promoting BIM.xviii  In the use of the term “universal standards”, it is also possible to deduce that Mittelholzer did not give much credence to the efforts of other key protagonists in the region.   Whatever the case, credit must surely be given to Mittelholzer, for helping to raise a greater awareness amongst listeners across the region of BIM and perhaps for encouraging other writers to make contributions to it.

Mittelholzer presented his last Caribbean Voices programme on 1st June 1958.  Since the programme was brought to an end just three months later, on 7th September 1958, one might wonder why he didn’t see Caribbean Voices through to its ultimate end.   Some explanation for this can perhaps be found in what follows.   On 4th May of that year, Mittelholzer took the extraordinary step of inviting Arthur Calder Marshall to offer a review of his travel journal, With a Carib Eye, which as the transcripts reveal, contained acid remarks about an “English novelist – well known rather than distinguished” who had written a book on Trinidad following a short stay in the islandxix.  In allegedly being based on the drunken ramblings of the novelist’s host and the “slum districts…of Port of Spain”, the book, according to Mittelholzer had been destined to receive critical acclaim.  Mittelholzer’s decision to invite Calder Marshall to share his views of the travel journal with Caribbean Voices listeners was unusual.   Firstly, it is striking that no other reviews of his work were broadcast during the 21-month period of his editorship, despite for instance the publication of A Tale of Three Place (1957).  The situation appears even more remarkable when we consider that the ‘well-known’ English novelist Mittelholzer had anonymously been referring to was in fact, Calder Marshall.  It is possible to surmise from this that Mittelholzer had intended to confront Calder Marshall over the western tradition of portraying West Indians as: “distinctly primitive, backward and exotic.”xx  This objective however apparently backfired in Calder Marshall’s favour.  Apart from noting that Mittelholzer had got many of his facts wrong, (the book, Glory Dead (1938) had for instance “received extremely antagonistic reviews”) Calder Marshall went on to argue that Mittelholzer had created a false picture about the geology of Barbados, down played the importance of the cultural changes taking place in the West Indies and was deluded in his “thesis that West Indians are just like Europeans”.  As a novelist who placed great importance on notions of truth and integrity and had written With a Carib Eye with, in his view, the authority of an insider, these comments must have been publicly humiliating.

Whilst Mittelholzer went on to host the programmes consecutively aired on the 11th and 18th of May, he was notably absent on the 25th of May, when Calder Marshall was this time invited by W. R. A. Pilgrim, the programme’s producer, to offer a review of V. S. Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira.  His opening comments indicate that the Caribbean Voices team favoured his perspective of the West Indies over that of Mittelholzer’s:

Some weeks ago on this programme Marghanita Laski, Edgar Mittelholzer and I were arguing as to whether West Indians were just the same as Europeans; and I was maintaining that just as British, French, Germans and Yugoslavs, for example, are very different from one another; so West Indians are very different from Europeans – and I’d go farther and say that the people differ from island to island.

It seems to me that Vidia Naipaul’s new book bears out my contention most brilliantly; it is not merely an essentially West Indian book, but a specifically Trinidadian or Tricky-dadian book.xxi

It is possible to speculate that as his last programme was aired on 1st June, four weeks after his clash with Calder Marshall, that Mittelholzer had either given notice of his resignation or been asked to step down from his post as programme editor.   These events arguably triggered off a major turning point in the novelist’s life.  With his ideas so badly out of joint with the times, Mittelholzer must have felt deeply alienated and unable to continue writing about the Caribbean from the perspective of an ‘insider’ since his understanding of the region had been so critically attacked. Without the anchoring influence of his Trinidadian wife, his greatest critic (from whom he had been estranged since 1957 and later divorced in May 1959) Mittelholzer turned his back on those whom he felt had rejected him.  This could speculatively help to explain why all of the novels he conceived from 1958 onwards were set in the UK.  Perhaps it was his attempt to turn the tables on the Western world by writing about them; attacking in many instances the faults that he perceived to exist in British society?  It should be recalled that novels such Eltonsbrody (1960), The Mad MacMullochs (1959), Latticed Echoes (1960) and Thunder Returning (1961) all belong in terms of their conception to the pre-1958 period.  The two latter highly experimental novels which were admittedly developed in the post-1958 period were only done so, with the encouragement of his second wife, Jacqueline to whom Latticed Echoes is dedicated.  Since the semi-autobiographical protagonist, Richard Lehrer, in both Latticed Echoes and Thunder Returning is presented as a West Indian ‘outsider’, the novels arguably reflect the impact of Mittelholzer’s clash with Calder-Marshall on his state of mind.

Though Mittelholzer’s involvement in Caribbean Voices apparently ended on a sour note, his contribution to the programmes and Caribbean literature in general was not forgotten.  In a programme aired on 10th August 1958, and dedicated to the pioneers of Caribbean literature, Lamming acknowledged the regions indebtedness to three specific novelists: Edgar Mittelholzer, Vic Reid and Roger Mais.  As he was to remark:

[West Indians] have had to live with a large and self-delighted middle class, who have never understood their function.  One cannot accuse an illiterate man of avoiding books, but one wonders what is to be done with people who regard education as something to have, but not use. […] The absence of that [reading] public, the refusal of a whole class to respond to that activity which was not honoured by money; it was that dense and grinning atmosphere that […] Mittelholzer survived […] by fleeing the land…

Reid, Mittelholzer and Mais carried on their private war for more than twenty years.  And different as they are in texture and theme [we offer] recognition of our debt to their work.xxii

In going on to transmit an excerpt from his short story, Forest Scene, Lamming argues that Mittelholzer’s literary talent was most apparent is his handling of atmosphere.  This gift and life-long sensitivity to landscape, environment and climate remained an integral part of Mittelholzer’s novels irrespective of location; whether the Corentyne Thunder of British Guiana, The Weather in Middenshot or the Barbados-set Of Trees and The Sea.   Since much of it is arguably depicted as having both a spiritually immanent and transcendental quality, perhaps this once again, indicates that critics need to devote greater attention to the impact of Mittelholzer’s religious beliefs on the shaping of his novels? This basic supposition certainly seems to be supported by the remarks of Garvin, (a key semi-autobiographical character in The Jilkington Drama):

God is in the weather – as in everything else.  Well, it’s the weather that acts as my link with God.  I feel I have a kinship with every kind of weather.xxiii

…and reinforces the hypothesis that Mittelholzer’s key preoccupations – religion and environment – are intimately interlinked.
This exploration into the Caribbean Voices transcripts and other related archival material has arguably demonstrated that much remains to be understood about Mittelholzer’s life, his world-view and thematic preoccupations.  Based on findings thus far, it is evident he was a controversial and complex author: one whose life and literary career had been significantly influenced by an internalisation of western notions of cultural supremacy and a desire to refute/subvert western ideologies of Caribbean ‘primitivism’ by highlighting the universal commonalities of mankind.   His status as an ‘inside-outsider’ of coloured middle class society arguably enabled him to rebel against the conservatism of New Amsterdam society; make the radical decision in 1928 to become a writer; and challenge the false notion that as a Caribbean man of colour, he was somehow less gifted or inferior to his European counterparts.  His embattled state of mind, paradoxically, gave him the necessary impetus to remain focused, disciplined and determined to break through into the world of publishing and literary fame.  It is clear however from his involvement in Caribbean Voices that his was not a self-centred ambition.  He had wanted, as his writing Of Casuarinas and the Cliffs reveals, to demonstrate that the Caribbean was as valid an environment to write about as any other.  In his role of programme editor he had clearly sought to engender not only an interest in literature within the region, but also to offer practical advice, help and support to writers who similarly aspired to become published poets and/or novelists.   In selecting a broad range of material across the region, and which reflected the rich cultural, racial and social milieu, Mittelholzer also helped towards the breakdown of barriers which had previously isolated the multitude of islands and mainland territories from an awareness and understanding of each other.  As a trailblazer, prolifically producing creative material which recorded socio-cultural and historical aspects of Caribbean society from his associative, principally middle-class perspective, his novels importantly became the source of close critical scrutiny.  By providing a platform, within the context of Caribbean Voices, upon which key regional protagonists and programme listeners could discuss, debate, shape and consolidate their visions of a future more inward looking Caribbean, Mittelholzer helped (albeit at times in unintended ways) to influence the content and thematic trend of Caribbean literature.

Around the Web