A few years ago, a judge for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction surveyed the field and noted that books from the edges of the old British Empire, from places such as Zimbabwe, Belize, Sri Lanka, were as abundantly represented in the competition as books from the English heartland. The English had sent their language and culture into the world on the point of a bayonet, and now they were returning, changed for their encounters beyond their small island.
A pioneer in this turn was a quietly militant Trinidadian, Cyril Lionel Robert James, a brilliant reader and writer who, in his early 30s, gathered up a manuscript he had been working on for several years and set sail for England in 1932. He made his way to Manchester, where he astonished the editors of the Guardian with his comprehensive knowledge not just of literature and history, but also of the definitively colonial sport of cricket, which he was hired to cover. Meanwhile, he worked on that manuscript, which, 80 years ago, saw publication as the novel Minty Alley.
In that complex though short novel, James condenses a whole world of class and ethnic differences within the short street for which the book is named, with servants and working people scrambling to make a living while the somewhat better-off residents of the alley feud and scheme among themselves. No matter what station they hold, the people of Minty Alley do best when they work together. They all agree, though, that elsewhere is better than there, the best elsewhere of all lying far over the horizon at the end of the packet steamer route to New York City.
Minty Alley earned much praise for its sensitive portrayal of the poor, especially poor women, and for its playful use of the folkloric trickster tradition in a modern context. But James did not write fiction again. Instead, having taken up the cause of socialism, he devoted himself to writing works of politics and history, including the now-classic study of the Haitian Revolution, Black Jacobins. He moved to New York, where his views earned him the attention of the authorities, and he wrote one of his books, about Herman Melville’s fictional worlds, while in jail awaiting deportation.
He returned to the Guardian and cricket journalism while earning an ever greater reputation as a critic of colonialism and totalitarianism. So well known was he, thanks to the growing reputation of Minty Alley and his other books, that Martin Luther King made his first trip outside the United States to see James, whose influence would soon be felt in King’s civil rights and antiwar activism. In the last two decades of his life, James continued to write books while working as a much-traveled lecturer and journalist and reporting on such events as the transition of the first former colony in Africa to independence.
Still in print, though perhaps at a price the egalitarian C.L.R. James might not approve of, Minty Alley opened many doors, so that for every P.D. James there is a V.S. Naipaul, for every Hilary Mantel, a Zadie Smith—and English literature, or better literature in English, is the richer for it.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.