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Prizes and Prejudice: Institutional Support for Windrush Modernists

10 November 2020

Bret Johnson, Loughborough University

George Lamming, who is originally from Barbados, established himself in Britain during the 1950s as a successful author, intellectual, and public figure who frequently appeared on TV and radio programmes.[1] Lamming’s public appearances came despite the hostility towards Caribbean immigrants, known as the Windrush Generation, who came to the United Kingdom following the British Nationality Act 1948. In an interview in 1960 for the BBC program Monitor, Lamming described the ordeal of the Windrush Generation, remarking upon ‘the terror of not knowing and of not even daring to call upon a single soul among the hundred who surround him,’ stating that, ‘this is the initial experience of the West Indian arriving […] he is alone.’[2] Along with other Caribbean authors of this generation, such as Sam Selvon and Edgar Mittelhölzer, Lamming experienced uncertainty, segregation and prejudice when he moved to London in 1950. Many viewed the move to London as a necessity: Arthur Calder-Marshall, a close acquaintance of Lamming, described London as ‘the cultural centre for Caribbean writers.’[3] Many writers from the Caribbean knew that London offered a cultural infrastructure which included the British Empire’s publishing industry, art institutions and an audience who were receptive to the experimental prose that would become associated with this generation of Caribbean authors.

As well as experiencing the extensive racism that was prevalent throughout Britain, critics accused their writing of being too intellectual, and reminiscent of modernist experiments that were often at odds with popular culture and mainstream audiences. Kingsley Amis claimed that ‘experiment of the more readily detectable – and detachable – kind has intermittently engaged one of the best-known West Indian writers, Edgar Mittelholzer.’[4] The likelihood of commercial success for these authors was slim. However, literary prizes frequently bestowed upon them a level of prestige and opportunities for their careers to develop. Literary prizes were an integral part of the infrastructure that helped promote and support authors from the Windrush Generation. The regular occurrence of Caribbean modernists winning literary prizes contains a triumvirate of understudied yet meaningful relationships between: Black authors and literary prizes; Black authors and modernism; and modernism and literary prizes. When Lamming won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1957 for In the Castle of My Skin (1953), these relationships were exhibited against the context of 1950s Britain – a time during which canonical modernism could be seen to be moving into a late period (or having expired).[5]

During the late 1950s, many awards were given to authors of the Windrush Generation in a relatively short period of time. John Hearne became the first Caribbean novelist to win a major British literary prize in 1956 when he won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for Voices Under the Window (1955), and a few months later in 1957, Lamming won the Somerset Maugham Award. This was no small feat: in a 2002 interview, Lamming recalled that ‘winning the Somerset Maugham Award at the time was very prestigious, almost like the Booker of today.’[6] V. S. Naipaul also won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1958, the Somerset Maugham Award in 1961 and the 1971 Booker Prize. Caribbean authors also gained recognition outside of the UK: Lamming, Mittelhölzer, and Selvon were recipients of prestigious Latin and Caribbean Guggenheim fellowships issued in the USA.[7] Guggenheim fellowships were also awarded to writers of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Countee Cullen, which had a significant impact ‘allowing them to develop their talents fully and […] complete specific artistic and scholarly endeavours.’[8] Prizes and awards were having a large impact on Black writing communities within predominantly white countries at a transatlantic level. The awards  would later have a global impact, with Caribbean authors Derek Walcott (1991), and Naipaul (2001) winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

George Lamming with Henry Swanzy, Andrew-Salkey and Sam Selvon.

Literary prizes were integral to the success of establishing Caribbean literature in Britain and throughout the world. They consecrated their work at a time when Black communities in Britain were subjected to racism and oppression, and provided institutional validation from esteemed literary societies. According to Roberts, ‘texts welcomed into a national culture, and celebrated as part of that culture (particularly through national literary awards), can confer the status of host upon immigrant writers previously considered as guests.’[9] Prizes also provided Caribbean writers with a much bigger platform to communicate theirs and others’ experiences, which often recounted the racism experienced in white-majority populations. For instance, Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners (1956), which is one of the first published novels that depict the trials and tribulations of the Windrush Generation, was finished with the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded to him in 1955. The Somerset Maugham Award provided Lamming with £500 to use for travel and enrich his work. Lamming used the prize money to fund a trip to Africa, which inspired his work Natives of My Person (1971); a fictional story which C. L. R. James called ‘a philosophic expression of the curious history of the Caribbean islands.’[10]

However, Lamming cast doubt on the impact awards could have. He claimed that ‘the sovereignty of a literature cannot be guaranteed by the excellence of individual works of the imagination or the ingenuity of discourse between writers and their critics […] but rather through the persistence of those mediators, intellectuals who persist in extending the terrain of mediation.’[11] Rather than rely on the whims of judges awarding prizes, there was a need for consistent support to help Caribbean literature gain international and long standing recognition. Others similarly saw the weaknesses of literary prizes in comparison to a sustainable literary culture for Caribbean authors. In an article in the Times Literary Supplement, Calder-Marshall asked ‘after Guggenheim, what? Can West Indian writers become assimilated in the English literary society and yet retain that distinctive Caribbean flavour which has marked out their work?’[12]

Simply answered: no. Despite prizes and accolades, the British literary society largely still dismissed, excluded and actively sought to undermine the work of Caribbean authors. Critics often incorporated the race of Caribbean authors in their reviews in attempts to denounce their work. One review of Lamming’s novel The Pleasures of Exile (1960) stated:

Mr Lamming has some reason for asking us to stand back in amazement as we consider that these descendants of slaves from all over the world, with no long historical tradition, no language of their own, and no audience in their own countries of any magnitude, have accomplished so much. It is only in exile that they can find an audience and publishers for their elaborations on “peasant themes” and these are the pleasures of exile, which compensate for the discomforts of a cold climate and the vague menace of the streets to the Negro after Notting Hill […] when faced by a poorly written and pretentious book by an underprivileged writer, poor, young, autodidact, or coloured, it is easy and tempting to make allowances, to be kind, to praise the attempt rather than the accomplishment.’[13]

Caribbean authors were met with hostility and critique in wider literary society, but found support and readers with metropolitan audiences that had also engaged with modernist techniques. Peter Kalliney claims that ‘metropolitan modernists sought out allies and supporters among late colonial and postcolonial intellectuals.’[14] The alliance, for want of a better word, between Caribbean authors and modernists was a symbiotic relationship. Modernism was rejuvenated by authors such as Lamming. His novel In the Castle of my Skin was described in one review ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Barbadian’, reworking James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist of the Young Man.[15] In return, Caribbean authors received support from these networks. Notable figures such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Stephen Spender endorsed Lamming’s writing. Sartre featured Lamming’s work in his journal Les Temps Modernes alongside T. S. Eliot, and Alfred Döblin, and Spender named Lamming in an article as a promising young figure in poetry.[16]

This relationship, however, was problematic. It involved the fetishisation of Black authors and perpetuated the trope of the ‘white saviour’. According to Wendy Griswold, ‘the British intelligentsia were eager to incorporate their exotic brethren, and publishers of new fiction, who were enjoying a boom during the fifties, were responsive.’[17] As for modernists, the work of Caribbean authors was used to continue a predominantly white movement. A canon was formed that failed to acknowledge or include their work within the history of modernist studies. Kalliney notes that ‘the eager adoption of colonial intellectuals by London’s literati was an instinctive attempt to preserve the tattered remnants of modernist culture in the face of national and imperial decline.’[18] This attempt at preservation ultimately failed, and a dominant notion of Anglo-European modernism was committed to university syllabi.

It has only been in the last few years that authors such as Lamming, Selvon, and Mittelhölzer have been recognised within new work in modernist studies. Douglas Mao and J. Dillon Brown have both recently argued for Lamming’s inclusion in the modernist canon based on close readings of his work which they see as exemplifying modernists themes and styles, notably the choice to make the work ‘difficult’.[19] Brown explains that ‘Lamming’s modernist difficulty can be read as an assertive literary-political gesture aimed at preserving a West Indian (racial, political, cultural) difference.[20] Mao suggests that Lamming experimented with form in In the Castle of My Skin, a semi autobiographical bildungsroman, as experimentation was the only way to capture the unique experience of Lamming. Mao claims that ‘certain kinds of literary experiments could enjoy immunity from dismissal if carried out under the sign of the modern.’[21] Kalliney writes that ‘naming West Indian writers as heirs of British modernism is not a simple argument for canonical inclusion […] but instead a study of the way inclusion and assimilation, and subsequently exclusion and marginalisation happened for a particular set of writers.’[22] New work in modernist studies is expanding, engaging with issues surrounding modernism’s difficult history, its future as a field of study, and its legacy. The exclusion of Windrush modernists can be partly accounted for by the narrow parameters of canonical modernism, which situated the movement within Anglophonic metropolises between 1890-1945, but also wider, institutional and cultural failures to acknowledge the writing of members of the Windrush generation.


Sources

[1] Lamming’s media appearances include Caribbean Voices, The Third Programme, Monitor, and Tonight.

[2] West Indian Writers, Monitor (BBC, 11 September 1960, 22:00).

[3] Arthur Calder-Marshall, ‘Caribbean Voices’, Times Literary Supplement (5 August 1955) p. 452.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For a further exploration of canonical modernism’s latter stages, see Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[6] David Scott, ‘The Sovereignty of Imagination’, Small Axe, 12.6 (September 2002), pp. 72-200 (p. 154).

[7] Guggenheim fellowships are competitive grants tailored to the needs of the recipients, whether in the arts, humanities, or sciences, to allow them to conduct their work with creative freedom for a period of six months to a year.

[8] Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman (eds.), Encyclopaedia of the Harlem Renaissance: Volume 1 and Volume 2 A-Z (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 454.

[9] Gillian Roberts, Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), p. 4.

[10] C. L. R. James, ‘Review: Natives of My Person’, CrossCurrents, 22, No. 3 (1972), pp. 321-327, (p. 321).

[11] George Lamming, ‘Caribbean Thought: History, Pedagogy, and Archive’ in The George Lamming Reader: The Aesthetics of Decolonisation, ed. by Anthony Brogues (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2011), pp. 258-65 (p. 258-9).

[12] Calder-Marshall, p. 452.

[13] Geoffrey Gorer, ‘The Pleasures of Exile by George Lamming’, The Listener, 28 July 1960, p. 160.

[14] Peter Kalliney, Commonwealth of Letters: Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 4.

[15] Arthur Calder-Marshall, ‘Youth in Barbados’, Times Literary Supplement, 27 March 1953, p. 206.

[16] Jean-Paul Sartre (ed.), Les Temps Modernes, 102, 01 May 1954.

Stephen Spender, ‘Are Poets Really Necessary?’, Picture Post, 02 June 1951, p 32-34.

[17] Wendy Griswold, ‘The Fabrication of Meaning: Literary Interpretation in the United States, Great Britain, And the West Indies’ AJS 92.5 (1987) pp. 1077-1117, p. 1085.

[18] Peter Kalliney, ‘Metropolitan Modernism and Its West Indian Interlocutors: 1950s London and the Emergence of Postcolonial Literature’, PMLA, 122.1 (2007), pp. 89-104 (p. 91).

[19] J. Dillon Brown, Migrant Modernism: Post-War London and the West Indian Novel (Charlottesville, VA:

University of Virginia Press, 2013); Douglas Mao, ‘Transcolonial Bildung: George Lamming, Social Death, and Actually Existing Modernism’, Modernist Cultures, 13.1 (2018).

[20] Brown, p. 77.

[21] Douglas Mao, ‘Transcolonial Bildung: George Lamming, Social Death, and Actually Existing Modernism’, Modernist Cultures, 13.1 (2018), p. 33-54, (p. 48).

[22] Kalliney, Commonwealth of Letters, p. 131.

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