Remembering Edgar Mittelholzer Part II

By Colin Rickards

Colin Rickards is an author, journalist, broadcaster and Caribbeanist with long connections to Guyana and its authors.

The 24 novels and two works of non-fiction by the late Guyanese writer Edgar Mittelholzer (1909-65) — the majority of them published in a 15-year period — was a remarkable achievement. With the exception of 1964, he had a new book out every year from 1950 to 1965, sometimes more than one. There were two in 1952, 1954, 1960, 1963 and 1965 and three each in 1958 and 1961.

He enjoyed the music of Wagner, and was fascinated by the weather — being especially fond of the sea and of casuarina trees — which not infrequently featured in his novels, and while he has gone, he has not been forgotten, and much of his work now seems poised to make a comeback.

After the author’s tragic death in 1965 I wrote a tribute piece in Frank Collymore’s Barbados-based literary magazine Bim, which was published the following year, and Mittelholzer’s second wife, Jacqueline Pointer (now Ward), also wrote about her late husband in Bim.

Guyanese literary icon A.J. Seymour, wrote meaningfully about Mittelholzer in his magazine Kyk-over-Al in 1968, and the pioneering Caribbean author’s life and work has been explored by Michael Gilkes, and by Guyana-born Dr. Frank Birbalsingh, Senior Scholar and Professor Emeritus of York University’s Department of English, who has written several scholarly articles about aspects of Mittelholzer’s writing, and has interviewed various of his colleagues and members of his family over a period of years.

The Mittelholzer “renaissance” has come about through the agency of Peepal Tree Press in England, which, in a new series of books called “Caribbean Modern Classics,” has republished four of his early novels and has plans to republish another six, a book of literary criticism and, ultimately, a biography.

As part of the Caribbean Tourism Organization-sponsored “Caribbean Week” in Toronto, late last month, the University of Toronto’s Centre for Caribbean Studies and the community bookshop A Different Bookstore staged an evening event remembering Mittelholzer.

Speakers included Dr. Birbalsingh, Trinidadian author Raymond Ramcharitar, who provided the Introduction for Peepal Tree’s edition of A Morning at the Office — originally published in 1950 –and myself. Dr. Alissa Trotz, the Guyanese scholar who directs the Centre for Caribbean Studies, was the Moderator, and readings from Mittelholzer’s 1941 classic Corentyne Thunder and The Life and Death of Sylvia, published in 1953, were given by Nancy Rickford and Christopher Pinheiro, respectively a Guyanese and a Trinidadian.

Mittelholzer is arguably best known for his ambitious Guyana-set Kaywana Trilogy, published in 1952, 1954 and 1958. It tells the story of the fictional Van Groenwegel family from the 17th Century to the eve of Guianese self-government — and is an astonishing piece of work, described by Dr. Birbalsingh as the author’s “supreme achievement.”

There are, of course, only three books — which makes it a trilogy — but I have met people who are convinced that there were actually seven Kaywana books. The problem is that U.S. hardcover and paperback publishers tended to change the British publishers’ titles to suit their audiences. There were some changes (one of them with Mittelholzer’s approval) in England, too. So, for the record, I set out what I have found on the true publishing history.

Children of Kaywana was initially published by Peter Nevill in London in 1952 and was not re-titled in its U.S. hardcover edition. However, when it was published there in paperback it became Savage Destiny, though much later a different paperback publisher reverted to the original title.

Mittelholzer changed his British publishers after Children of Kaywana, and subsequent editions came out under the imprint of Secker & Warburg, with whom he would have a decade long relationship. His title for the sequel, The Harrowing of Hubertus, published in 1954, failed to make a specific link to the earlier book, while the title of the third volume, Kaywana Blood, published four years later, was unequivocal, so Secker & Warburg changed the title of later editions of Hubertus, re-naming it Kaywana Stock.

The U.S. publisher retained Kaywana Stock for their edition, but another publisher changed the name of Kaywana Blood to The Old Blood, and a paperback publisher followed suit. Another U.S. paperback publisher, some 20 years later, used Kaywana Blood, and, at about the same time, a British paperback house, in republishing Hubertus — a.k.a. Stock — called it Kaywana Heritage, hence all the confusion.

Dr. Birbalsingh recalls first encountering Mittelholzer’s writing through the novel My Bones and My Flute, first published in 1955. It involves the passengers on a ship going up the Berbice River and Birbalsingh began reading it while ascending the same river to visit his brother.

“I can’t describe my excitement when I realized that I was making the journey of the characters in the book,” he said. “I was reading about something which actually involved me.”

Fellow panelist Ramcharitar recalled that he bought a secondhand copy of My Bones and My Flute in a Port of Spain bookshop, thinking that he might be able to use it in teaching a class, and was also excited to discover a book with West Indian characters, “a book which really meant something to me.”

Several audience members also remarked that after growing up on a steady diet of English Classics, they, too, had been thrilled to find in Mittelholzer an author who wrote about things which had relevance in their lives. Reader Pinheiro spoke of the impact Mittelholzer’s writing — particularly Corentyne Thunder, which is currently being made into a major film by Guyanese actor Marc Gomes — has had on him.

Next year, Peepal Tree Press — which will celebrate its 25th Anniversary — will republish the three volumes of the Kaywana Trilogy, with their original titles, as well as My Bones and My Flute, Mittelholzer’s autobiographical A Swarthy Boy, first published in 1963, and In the Eye of the Storm: Edgar Mittelholzer 1909-2009 Critical Perspectives by Juanita Cox.

London-based, and of Guyanese descent, Cox is an Associate Fellow of the Caribbean Studies Centre at London Metropolitan University, and is working on a doctoral thesis called “Edgar Mittelholzer and the Shaping of his Novels” at the University of Birmingham. She has run down people who knew the author, has unearthed collections of his letters, and successfully undertaken really quite extraordinary research for a forthcoming biography.

Peepal Tree Press tells me that they have secured the rights to republish Mittelholzer’s first book, Creole Chips, and also the rare The Adding Machine, initially published in Jamaica in a very small edition in 1954.

Guyanese scholar Rupert Roopnaraine, opens his Introduction for Peepal Tree’s edition of Shadows Move Among Them, by saying: “While it may be too early to speak of a Mittelholzer revival, there are encouraging signs of a reawakening of not only academic but wider general interest in the work of this prodigious pioneer of the Guyanese and Caribbean novel.”

He is perfectly correct — and the Mittelholzer smorgasbord has begun.

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