The Redrawn Map of Eric Walrond’s Caribbean

Eric Walrond, In Search of Asylum: The Later Writings of Eric Walrond, ed. Louis J. Parascandola and Carl A. Wade (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2011); 224 pages; ISBN 978-0813035604 (hardcover).

• February 2012

When the New York based writer Eric Walrond (1898–1966) published Tropic Death, a 1926 collection of stories set in the Caribbean, it was not universally acclaimed, but both critics and proponents recognized it as new and significant. Its modernist narrative techniques and its refusal to sentimentalize or propagandize prompted frequent comparisons to Jean Toomer’s Cane, which it outsold two to one, and Walrond was heralded as one of the most promising of the New Negro writers in Harlem.1 Cane is now required reading for students of American modernism and African American studies, while Tropic Death has been out of print for decades, and few know about its eccentric, peripatetic author. In Panama, the country of which Walrond considered himself “spiritually a native” and whose West Indian migrants figured prominently in his fiction, he is unknown outside of specialized academic circles.

Born in British Guiana and raised in Barbados and Panama during the Canal construction, Walrond arrived at age nineteen in New York. While the work of many of his Harlem peers, such as Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Countée Cullen, has been revived after a long period of neglect, Walrond has proven to be more resistant to recovery. Louis J. Parascandola laid the foundation for a reconsideration with his Winds Can Wake Up the Dead: An Eric Walrond Reader (1998), which included selections of Walrond’s journalism and fiction as well as stories from Tropic Death.2 As Parascandola observed, Walrond’s obscurity was due in part to the Caribbeanness of his background and his stories, which relegated him to the margins of a movement that he helped galvanize but was interpreted in narrowly nationalist terms. With the proliferation of scholarship in black Atlantic and hemispheric American studies since this first anthology, Walrond has again come to be seen as a significant writer, albeit for different reasons. “Like C. L. R. James in the 1950s,” Michelle Stephens wrote in 2004, “Eric Walrond also understood, as early as the 1920s, what it meant to say that the Caribbean was, in modernity, an American sea. The presence of the U.S. as an economic force in the Caribbean, and a political force in the world at the beginning of the twentieth century, meant a story of economic and cultural integration between the U.S. and the Caribbean as early as the 1920s. This is a story that has yet to be fully told in the fields of African American, Caribbean or American literature.”3 With the arrival of a second reader, this one focusing on his post-Harlem writing, Parascandola and coeditor Carl A. Wade have placed Walrond squarely on the map, but it is a map that has been redrawn substantially. Though his work can be claimed for Caribbean, African American, and postcolonial literary traditions, In Search of Asylum demonstrates Walrond’s irreducibility to any single category.

Walrond won a series of fellowships in the late 1920s, the last of which, a Guggenheim, took him back to the Caribbean to pursue research into the failed French attempt at the Panama Canal. He never returned to the United States, moving to France for two years then settling in England. As Parascandola and Wade observe, the fact that Walrond continued to write after leaving Harlem belies the standard accounts of his silence, as exemplified in David Levering Lewis’s remark that 1929 “was about the last heard of him.”4 In Search of Asylum, which features an extraordinary biographical essay rich with detail and insight, includes essays Walrond wrote for French, English, and Spanish journals about Harlem and the New Negro movement. It also includes articles that take bold stands against the “colour bar” in England and the exploitation of colonial subjects at home and abroad, and short fiction set in the Canal Zone, British Guiana, Brooklyn, and the English countryside. Throughout, the reader is struck by two recurring qualities. One is Walrond’s uncompromising sense of racial justice, which affiliated him with Marcus Garvey’s movement in the United States and again when it was reconstituted in London in the 1930s. The other is his extraordinary polyvocality, layering Standard English with various modes of what Edward Kamau Brathwaite would later call Caribbean “nation language.” Arriving in England seventeen years before the Windrush left its passengers at Tilbury docks, Walrond’s post-Harlem work represents black British writing avant la lettre.

And why didn’t Walrond fulfill the tremendous expectations Tropic Death generated? Here again Parascandola and Wade are instructive, for as they document, he was at work for many years on a book contracted to Boni and Liveright that he never completed, titled “The Big Ditch.” It survives, transmuted, in the form of serialized installments in the literary journal of a Wiltshire County psychiatric hospital, an institution to which Walrond voluntarily committed himself for treatment of depression from 1952 to 1957. Also published in this journal was short fiction that, though seldom rising to the best work in Tropic Death, is often compelling and certainly merits circulation beyond the patients and staff of the hospital. On the whole, despite never having published another book-length work after Tropic Death, Walrond’s work from the 1930s to the 1950s constitutes a fascinating archive for enthusiasts of Caribbean diaspora literature and indexes the tensions between colonial and postcolonial writing. In The New Republic in 1926, Robert Herrick saw “no discernible reason why the creator of Tropic Death should not go much farther in this field, which he has quite to himself, the sense of which is all in his blood, its color and its human complexity.”5 In Search of Asylum shows that Walrond did “go much farther in this field” than we had known, and in short order he no longer had it “quite to himself.” The value of the anthology resides less in its rehabilitation of a neglected Harlem Renaissance figure than its invitation to recalibrate received categories. Is Walrond a Guyanese writer, an interlocutor of Edgar Mittelholzer, Jan Carew, A. J. Seymour, and Wilson Harris? Is he a Harlem “monkey chaser,” a Caribbean immigrant whose Panama money paid his way to Ellis Island, and thus comparable to Claude McKay and Hubert Harrison? Is he a modernist exile who consorted with Nancy Cunard and spent many an early morning in the cabarets of Montmartre? Is he a London anti-imperialist in the vein of other West Indians such as C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Claudia Jones, Una Marson, and Harold Moody?

He is all of the above, as this anthology challenges us to recognize. The substantial labors of Parascandola and Wade build on the research of the late scholar Robert Bone and cull from periodicals as prominent as London’s venerable Spectator and as ephemeral as the Associated Negro Press (US), for which Walrond served as a foreign correspondent during World War II. No fewer than three Walrond books are due out in 2012—a collection of critical essays (University of the West Indies Press), a biography (Columbia University Press), and a long-awaited reissue of Tropic Death (W. W. Norton)—so In Search of Asylum could not have arrived at a more propitious time.

 

James Davis is the author of a forthcoming biography of Eric Walrond and of Commerce in Color: Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature (2007). He teaches in the American Studies Program and English Department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

 


1 Eric Walrond, Tropic Death (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926); Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923).

Eric Walrond, Winds Can Wake Up the Dead: An Eric Walrond Reader, ed. Louis J. Parascandola (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998).

Michelle Stephens, “Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death and the Discontents of American Modernity,” in Diane Accaria-Zavala and Rodolfo Popelnik, eds., Prospero’s Isles: the Presence of the Caribbean in the American Imaginary (Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean, 2004), 175–76.

David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was In Vogue (New York: Penguin, 1979), 234.

Robert Herrick, review of Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death, New Republic, 10 November 1926, 332.

 

Related Articles