Caribbean Writers and the Public Sphere

May 2012

Raphael Dalleo, Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); 320 pages; ISBN 978-0813931999 (paper).

This is an ambitious, original study of the literary public sphere that moves across Barbados, Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico with confidence, keeping multiple literary histories in play simultaneously, while helping to forge a vital sense of a regional history. Any lingering idea of the postcolonial as a largely, if not solely, anglophone preoccupation is vigorously challenged here, as, for instance, when the testimonio’s robust ties to Latin American studies and South Asian subaltern studies are utilized to reflect on Cuba and Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s. In this study the United States is part of a sustained conversation with the regional Caribbean—as succeeding and partnering with European imperialism; as offering competing visions of modernity; as making concerns about the capitalist marketplace more explicit, more hysterical, and more nuanced.

Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere “Caribbeanizes” discussions of the public sphere in Western European, US, and Latin American/Latino contexts by Angel Rama, Jürgen Habermas, and Julio Ramos, among others. Raphael Dalleo shows how these theorists are limited in not accounting for how slavery and post-slavery contexts helped shape the public sphere, and reveals how such contexts are crucial when he examines how Juan Francisco Manzano’s Cuban context and Mary Prince’s Bermuda/England matrix shaped an “abolitionist public sphere” in the early nineteenth century. Then he shows us how the 1850s looked, when Trinidadian Michel Maxwell Philip, Jamaican Mary Seacole, and six Cuban poets residing in New York and New Orleans are brought into the same analytical conversation. Not only are notions of a Caribbean public sphere complexly drawn out here, but Dalleo’s cross-linguistic comparison allows us to “test” conclusions that we have been accustomed to drawing only within imperial/linguistic regimes: do the same assumptions obtain for mid-century Cubans as for their Trinidadian counterparts?

Throughout, Dalleo reflects on the enduring image of the literary critic and the literary sphere as having the special ability to represent the nation, to critique the (old or new) imperial power, to recognize and critique materialism, and to speak for ordinary people shunned by the external or internal bourgeoisie. But these characteristics bring absolutely no reassurance. If the literary intellectual is anti-materialistic, for instance, and defends the beleaguered colony against a nakedly materialistic imperial power, isn’t there a risk of appearing to be high-minded, irrelevant, and elitist? And if literary intellectual life and the market are not mutually exclusive, how is the delicate balance between them to be successfully negotiated? For José Martí, exiled from Cuba in the United States in the late nineteenth century, for instance, a democratic public sphere meant that the poet, freed from the sponsorship of a patron, now risked becoming nomadic and marginal; the heroic and lyrical poet had to find his or her way in a gilded age in which the lyre was now secularized but also privatized and monetized.

If the early-twentieth-century public sphere was identified with the bustling commerce of the streets, docks, and machinery of the region’s capital cities, were literary intellectuals cheapened in their proximity to this, or made vital and relevant? The vocation of writing could be active and masculine in relation to a gossipy, slanderous public sphere identified with women and insufficiently masculine men; but it could also be passive and feminine when contrasted with the noble, active speaking voice of some fictional protagonists. Gossip might imply Creole speech and lies, but negotiation of gossip was also necessary for getting access to the pulse of the people, and thus maintaining relevance. So the middle-class protagonist was alternately linked to, marked off from, or portrayed as giving voice to the passive landscape/folk/woman: in Trinidad in the first decade of the twentieth century, in Stephen Cobham’s Rupert Gray, and the 1930s, in C. L. R. James’s Minty Alley); in Jamaica in the 1930s, in Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom; or in Haiti in the 1940s, in Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée. Similarly, the intellectual might be a technocrat, or definitively not a technocrat. A regional canvas gives us a larger spread of examples to work this out, while also, of course, bringing to mind other examples: What if we added Una Marson’s magazine fiction to these early and mid-twentieth-century examples?

Continuing the comparative considerations, Dalleo points out that after vigorous publishing careers that began in the late 1940s, Barbadian George Lamming stopped publishing in the 1970s, and Guyanese writer Martin Carter also never published after the 1970s, until his death in the late 1990s. Because Lamming was at the height of his output when he was in the metropole, and Carter never left the Caribbean, generalizations about Caribbean writers finding their voice in the metropole or being stifled when they remain in the region are unhelpful here, given that the different trajectories of both writers ultimately led to similar outcomes. Dalleo goes on to discuss their relationship, as anglophone writers, to North American and British patronage, teasing out the difference between seeking one’s authority from the British literary machinery and from Caribbean histories of resistance. He also considers the democratization of the public sphere in the region, which, he shows, ironically jeopardized these writers’ hallowed, if beleaguered, status as intellectuals in nation-states dominated by indifferent or hostile political elites.

Roughly the second half of Dalleo’s study examines the difference between an “anticolonial” and “postcolonial” intellectual sphere, and in this sense Haitian writer Marie Chauvet emerges as a transitional figure: her complex representation of the middle class shows her neither taking for granted a literary class who can speak for the people nor jettisoning the idea that a literary intellectual at least ought to be able to do so. Literary commitment isn’t so much condemned for its irrelevance as despairingly mourned. From the 1960s onward, the modernist novelist is deemed irrelevant for the very mastery of high culture that had brought acclaim from metropolitan institutions, except that now the new threat posed by the North American film and advertising industries renders the novelist even less culturally significant. “Relevance,” then, means a precarious dance between embodying and representing a nation’s people without presuming to speak for them as high modernists had seemed to do, and also negotiating a culture industry which is both complicit with capitalism’s relentless commodification and continuous with populist desire. The testimonial editor and the theater director, represented here by Cuba’s Miguel Barnett and Jamaica’s Honor Ford-Smith, exemplify this tension. Biografía de un cimarrón (1966), as embodied by Esteban Montejo, is presented by Barnett as a figure of “heroic masculinity,” an authentic representative of “the people,” aligned with slavery and Cuba’s war of independence, in contradistinction to the figure of the female prostitute aligned with the Batísta regime in Canción de Rachel (1969). These are opposing narratives for a period concerned with the perceived danger of being seduced by North American materialism and popular culture.

In a really lovely reading that is simultaneously rich and economical, Dalleo similarly teases out the relationship of the theatrical all-woman group Sistren to a Jamaica that self-consciously repudiates its earlier Puerto Rican–style dance with global capitalism to embrace a democratic socialist turn away from corrupt foreign influences in the early 1970s. Sistren’s performances reflected on the implications of the violence of political partisanship and abuse of women for both working-class masculinity and a diminished political consciousness. Sistren’s exemplary theorization of quotidian experience in the context of a cross-class and democratic process is shown to be both ambitious and ambivalent. Oddly, Dalleo does not mention Carolyn Cooper’s discussion of the tensions of Sistren’s directorial and linguistic experimentations—a discussion rendered in nation language—but his discussion also reminds us that current discussions of masculinity, sexuality, and dancehall music have an immediate historical context in Sistren’s theorizations.

Unlike Jamaica and Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago and Puerto Rico’s “full incorporation into North American capitalism” means “borrowing from” rather than repudiating “the contaminated language of the market to create new artistic forms” (187), and to illustrate this, Dalleo discusses Luis Rafael Sánchez’s La guaracha del Macho Camacho (1976) and Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979). He also has an astute, compelling analysis of the region’s resident and diasporic intellectuals (Juan Florés, Carolyn Cooper, and others), who parlayed their literary training into analyses of the region’s popular music. In this way, as he puts it, “popular culture becomes the site for intellectuals to channel the utopian aspirations once invested in literature,” and “cultural studies becomes a strategy for addressing the postcolonial crisis of literary authority” (200). Popular music—politically charged in contradistinction to the enervated literary artifact, and also precariously popular/relevant and popular/market-tainted—becomes the latest ground on which the literary intellectual anxiously locates a place in the public sphere. But this “latest ground” reminded me of Leah Rosenberg and Harvey Neptune’s discussions of literary intellectuals’ anxious attempts to compete with the cultural authority of calypsonians in 1930s Trinidad.1

I think that such recollections and comparisons are inevitable, and that Dalleo is inviting us to come and dance with him in this richly textured account of Caribbean literature’s engagement with the public sphere that he has traced out for us. Certainly, he is pushing us to see that a nimble, multilingual grasp of the region’s cultural histories might enable us to give better accounts of each period and territory.


Faith Smith is associate professor of English at Brandeis University. She published Creole Recitations: John Jacob Thomas and Colonial Formation in the Late Nineteenth-Century Caribbean (2002), edited Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean (2011), and is working on a manuscript titled “Whose Modern? Caribbean Cultural and Intellectual Formations, 1885–1915.”


See Leah Rosenberg, Nationalism and the Formation of Caribbean Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2007), and Harvey Neptune, Caliban and the Yankees: Trinidad and the United States Occupation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).


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