Mittelholzer: Obsession with being an artist

During this week the work of two of the most important Guyanese authors, Martin Carter and Edgar Mittelholzer,  will be celebrated since it will mark two anniversaries.  It is twelve years since Carter died in December 1997 and December 16, 2009 will be the 100th year since the birth of Mittelholzer.  They are both major Caribbean writers and, in different ways, have made  significant impacts on Guyanese literature.

Such has been the importance of Carter that his work has been highlighted on this anniversary every year since 1998 in different ways, and events are planned for later this month.  Castellani House has consistently been a focal point for these events and will again be in the vanguard with a celebration of the Mittelholzer Centenary on his birthday, December 16.  Earlier in the year the centenary was commemorated by the University of Guyana when it hosted the XXVIII Annual West Indian Literature Conference in April, 2009, with the programme Edgar Mittelholzer: A Quiet Revolutionary.  The main presentation was Corentyne Thunder: A Quiet Revolution by the leading authority on Mittelholzer today, Juanita Cox of the University of Birmingham.

Mittelholzer is a writer of major significance to Guyanese and West Indian literature for many reasons.  He was among the pioneers.  He was the first Caribbean writer to become a professional; he was among the early producers of the Caribbean novels of realism; he was important among the first wave of Caribbean writers who established West Indian writing in Britain; he remains among the most prolific Guyanese and West Indian fiction writers; he had a particular sensitivity to language in his novels; he is one of an important line of writers from New Amsterdam; he immortalized both New Amsterdam and the Berbice River in fiction; he may be regarded as the founder of modern Guyanese fiction;   he is one of the most identifiable Guyanese writers and a foundation in the literature.

Edgar Mittelholzer
Edgar Mittelholzer

When Mittelholzer completed his first work of fiction Creole Chips in 1937 and his first major novel Corentyne Thunder in 1938, he joined a line of pioneer writers in the era of modern Caribbean literature with the West Indian novel still to establish itself and make a mark on the world.  There were a few others who had been writing novels such as the Jamaicans H G de Lisser and Claude Mackay, and Trinidadians CLR James, Ralph De Boissiere and Mendez.  For a number of reasons, the earlier writers who produced novels in the late nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth belong to a different category of early Caribbean fiction.  First de Lisser, then James and his colleagues in ‘the Beacon group’ and Mittelholzer ushered in the novels of realism in the Caribbean.  These were the pioneers of the modern West Indian novel.

Works like Corentyne Thunder (published 1941) and A Morning at the Office (1950) are examples of these novels of realism, and Mittelholzer’s prolific writing in the 1940s and ’50s established him as an innovator and the virtual founder of modern Guyanese fiction.  His exploits as a fledgling writer in New Amsterdam are legendary, including his tours of the town selling his stories door-to-door.  It is said that perseverance is as much responsible for the success of writers as talent, and one may add Mittelholzer’s determination to be a writer which is reflected in some of those legends about him.

Of relevance to that as well, is not only his determination to be a writer, but his resolve to be a professional writer.  His perseverance in this regard made him the first West Indian to live as a full-time writer, with writing as his only occupation and source of income.  Juanita Cox revealed that he was associated with the famous BBC programme Caribbean Voices which broadcast and launched several West Indian writers in the UK longer than any other writer and longer than the celebrated producer Henry Swanzy.  Mittelholzer was with the series as contributor, featured writer, reader and producer at various times through its life 1945–1958.  Mittelholzer’s claim to this distinction outdoes V S Naipaul who had the same ambition.  Naipaul also worked with Caribbean Voices and launched his career in the late fifties.  Although he struggled at times and took various odd jobs he never wavered in that course, remaining resolute until he was able to do it, despite several rejection slips from publishers to whom he sent his work.

He left Guyana first for Trinidad where he lived for a few years before departing for England where he published his major Trinidadian novel, A Morning at the Office, a sociological analysis of the race and class structures in the multi-ethnic society.  It was also a book about the writing of fiction, an occupational passion of Mittelholzer’s, whose artist’s sensitivity and sensibility is also evident in the famous My Bones and My Flute (1955), also published in England.  His contribution to the development of West Indian literature includes the fact that he was one of the leading writers who first migrated to London and helped to establish Caribbean writing there.  In fact, for him, going to London was a definite career move in his quest to be a professional writer since he could not live off his earnings as a writer in the Caribbean.  That mindset drove him and as a consequence pushed West Indian literature which was benefiting from the Caribbean Voices broadcast and the work of other ‘exiles’ such as Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey and Naipaul.

Mittelholzer had several alleged eccentricities and certainly, according to the evidence, had recurring problems with publishers and with Caribbean Voices itself.  His relations with both had a habit of deteriorating and occasionally caused his work not to be published.  This was not helped by the litany of rejection slips.  However, in spite of such setbacks he was the most productive of the novelists, for a long time producing at the rate of a book a year.

He remains one of the most identifiable Guyanese writers because of his peculiar background, styles and preoccupations.  He produced a range of fiction, including the historical such as the Kaywana Series covering the Dutch period and the slave revolts either set within the historical period or dealing with its shadows which still haunt Berbice in contemporary times, as in the case of My Bones and My Flute.  These novels have immortalised the rivers and the landscape and colonial society such as New Amsterdam at the time Mittelholzer lived there.  This heritage includes a vivid drama of East Indian peasant life on the Corentyne in Corentyne Thunder and fictions of race and class including autobiographical statements like A Swarthy Boy.  But he can go off into various other human concerns as he does in little known work like some of his short stories and an obscure novelette.

In one story, They Know Not Whom to Mourn, a family is in grief expecting the death of one member who is confined to bed.  All focus is on that impending grief to the point where the problems and discomforts faced by other members of the family are unnoticed.  In the ironic ending, while the ailing member was miraculously recovering upstairs, another who had been sitting by himself downstairs unobserved, was discovered lifeless.  Nearby on the floor was an empty bottle that used to contain poison which had fallen from his hands.

The novelette is The Adding Machine, a fable about the consequences of greed and unconcern for the welfare and feelings of others.  In this, a ruthless owner of a small plantation led a life of excesses, selfish indulgences and treated the villagers as either nonexistent or as commodities.  The story is told of how his own adding machine on which he calculates his wealth adds up his ill deeds as he counts his cash until he is eventually brought to account and is consumed by the machine.
Amidst all Mittelholzer’s other concerns is his sharp sensitivity to language, particularly in the historical novels where the linguistic speech differences are accurately defined.  These differences are used in his treatment of culture, class and individuals, and adds the extra touch of genius to the writings of a man obsessed with being an artist.

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