Tropic Life

James Davis, Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); 418 pages; ISBN 978-0231157841 (hardcover)

• February 2016

If they think of Eric Walrond at all, Caribbean literary scholars are most likely to think of him as “the writer who ran away,” a characterization pinned on him by Kenneth Ramchand in a 1970 article using that catchphrase as its title. Ramchand, in addition to playing on the name of Alfred Mendes’s short story “The Man Who Ran Away,” was indexing a widely held belief about Walrond: that after his breakout publication of Tropic Death in 1926, Walrond simply disappeared from the literary world, inexplicably failing to realize the brilliant potential suggested in his first—and only—full-length published work. James Davis’s Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean astutely amends this one-dimensional narrative of the author as a one-hit wonder of the Harlem Renaissance, carefully tracing the complicated, unsettled, but still literarily rich byways of Walrond’s life before, during, and—most poignantly—after his fleeting brush with American literary fame.

The book’s most notable trait is its resolute recovery of a vast archive of writing by and about its primary subject. Although undergoing something of a minor revival in recent times (as recorded in the columns of sx salon—see the reviews posted in February 2012 and July 2014), Walrond remains seriously understudied, with, before Davis’s book, a career that was startlingly underdocumented. If Davis’s introductory list of abbreviations for the nineteen different manuscript collections he consulted for the biography does not reveal its archival bona fides, one need only dip into the text for a taste of Walrond’s correspondence with Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Nancy Cunard, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Carl Van Vechten; his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship; the files of his publisher, Boni and Liveright; or the articles Walrond produced for Roundway Review, a newsletter/journal that he founded and edited while voluntarily committed to the Roundway Psychiatric Hospital in southwest England. The sheer amount of documentation collected in this biography, including items from the Walrond family papers, is a generous service to the academic community and by itself represents a remarkable achievement.

As Davis is careful to point out, though, even after all of his own impressive literary investigation, “the archive on Eric Walrond is riddled with gaps and silences” (355). This lacuna, in fact, bears directly on one of Davis’s primary points about the fleeting, contingent nature of historical recordkeeping and the process of canonization. Walrond’s life and work, with its peripatetic, unconventional, and often politically radical pathways, does not lend itself to the dominant modes of collection and recognition, and Davis effectively frames his recovery of Walrond as an exercise in attending to what Ralph Ellison figured as the “lower frequencies,” the difficult, silenced, subaltern notes left out of commonly accepted narratives. For Davis, the (partial) recuperation of Walrond’s fugitive story is important not only for reinstating the significance of a crucial twentieth-century figure of transnational anticolonial dissent but also in the act itself, which alerts us to the need to attend far more carefully to other fleeting, disenfranchised voices, both then and now.

A good part of the interest in—and the challenge of—retelling Walrond’s life involves the far-flung coordinates that it encompassed. Born in 1898 in British Guiana, to Barbadian parents, Walrond went on to live in Barbados, Panama, New York, France, and England. As often as not, as the biography underscores, Walrond’s various stops coincided with key moments of black diasporic history, including the building of the Panama Canal, the Harlem Renaissance, the rise (and fall) of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the burgeoning popularity of “Negroes” in France, and the pivotal midcentury mass migration of West Indians to Great Britain. In this light, Davis holds out Walrond as a quintessential representative of the kinesis inhering in twentieth-century black transnationalism, observing with wonder that Walrond “managed to compress these paradigmatic lines of flight into a single, extraordinary career” (336). The itinerancy of Walrond’s life underpins what is probably the book’s most substantial argument: one cannot understand Walrond outside of a rigorously comparative, transnational frame. As Davis notes near the beginning of the book, Walrond was “concerned with place, or more accurately with the relation between places” (11), and Davis is excellent in pointing out how Walrond’s wide-ranging travels allowed him to reflect on contexts and contours beyond the presiding discourses of his current location. This strategy seems aimed in particular at the insistently American framing of Walrond by scholars of African American literature—a critical practice Davis meticulously reveals as inadequate for grasping the complicated clashes of race, class, and nationalities Walrond’s writing manifests—but it ultimately adds a productive obliquity to the conventional narratives of race and politics critics have associated with Walrond in each of the many identities he has been seen to inhabit.

The book’s structure is oriented toward place, chronologically tracking its subject as he moves from one location to another. Given Walrond’s insistent peregrinations, this is an effective approach, allowing Davis to delve deeply into the intricate social, cultural, and political contexts in which Walrond lived without losing the force of contrast and change he sees as being so crucial to Walrond’s apprehension of the world. The most richly and intensively illustrated period in the biography is of 1920s New York. Although odd for a book predicated on loosening Walrond from the grip of Harlem-centric criticism, this asymmetry is no doubt the result of archival absence. In treating other places, Davis makes the most of what little there is. For example, in his discussion of Walrond’s time in Paris—a record preserved only because Walrond befriended and wrote to Shirley Graham (later the wife of W. E. B. Du Bois)—Davis is able to piece together a crucial, heretofore unknown story about the fate of The Big Ditch, an ambitious book on the Panama Canal that Walrond labored on for, essentially, the entirety of his life after Tropic Death. Tracing such small, salvageable clues, Davis conveys a compelling image of Walrond in and beyond his Harlem heyday, replete with financial struggles, bouts of depression, scattered mainstream publishing success, and, above all, a steady drive to portray in writing the rich diversity of black life.

This writing, of course, is dealt with in great detail, and Davis’s readings are ingeniously successful in demonstrating the critical payoffs of a transnational lens when dealing with Walrond’s subtle cosmopolitanism. If the readings sometimes fail to connect as carefully as they might to adjacent biographical events—a whole chapter devoted to Tropic Death, for example, provides a set of analyses that are interesting but somewhat peripheral to the story of Walrond’s life—they are nevertheless enlightening as literary criticism. A Caribbeanist might sense, as well, the book’s subterranean frame of American studies in which Davis engages tacit arguments about topics such as authenticity or originality without ever quite acknowledging the apparent stakes (or assumptions) involved. The sweeping achievement of the biography, however, is irrefutable. Skillfully researched and engagingly composed, the book stands as a discerning recuperation of a paradigmatic but neglected figure of twentieth-century black Atlantic letters: it should henceforth serve as an authoritative starting point for all Walrond scholarship, of which—as this book amply attests—there deserves to be considerably more.

 

J. Dillon Brown teaches anglophone Caribbean and postcolonial literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Migrant Modernism: Postwar London and the West Indian Novel and the editor, with Leah Rosenberg, of Beyond Windrush: Rethinking Postwar Anglophone Caribbean Literature.

 

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