Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics by Peter J. Kalliney
It is unfortunate that, so far as I can tell, Oxford University Press has not yet released an affordable edition of Peter J. Kalliney's Commonwealth of Letters, a fascinating book that is filled with ideas and information and yet also written in an engaging, not especially academic, style. It could find a relatively large audience for a book of its type and subject matter, and yet its publisher has limited it to a very specific market. [Update 22 Nov 2015: Commonwealth of Letters is now, and newly, available in paperback! It's still somewhat expensive, but not by academic book prices, which means that those of us who really really need our own copy can perhaps afford it. I picked it up at the Modernist Studies Association conference this weekend (conference discounts are a nice perk), and told so many people about it that I think it sold out. Which might not have been my fault. Or maybe it was...]
I start with this complaint not only because I would like to be able to buy a copy for my own use that does not cost more than $50, but because one of the many things Kalliney does well is trace the ways decisions by publishers affect how books, writers, and ideas are received and distributed. A publisher's decision about the appropriate audience for a book can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (or an unmitigated disaster). OUP has clearly decided that the audience for Commonwealth of Letters is academic libraries and rich academics. That's unfortunate.
Modernism and postcolonialism have typically been seen (until recently) as separate endeavors, but Kalliney shows that, in the British context, at least, the overlap between modernist and (post)colonial writers was significant. Modernist literary institutions developed into postcolonial literary institutions, at least for a little while. (Kalliney shows also how this development was very specific to its time and places. After the early 1960s, things changed significantly, and by the early 1980s, the landscape was almost entirely different.) Of course, writers on the history of colonial and post-colonial publishing have traced the effects of various publishing decisions (book design, marketing, etc.) before, especially with regard to how late colonial and early postcolonial writers were sold in the mid-20th century. Scholars have toiled in archives for a few decades to dig out exactly how the African Writers Series, for instance, distributed its wares. The great virtue of Kalliney's book is not that it does lots of new archival research (though there is some), but that it draws connections between other scholars' efforts, synthesizes a lot of previous scholarship, and interprets it all in often new and sometimes quite surprising ways.
Another of the virtues of the book is that though it has a central thesis, there is enough density of ideas that you could, I expect, reject the central thesis and still find value in a lot of what Kalliney presents. That primary argument is (to reduce it to its most basic form) that the high modernist insistence on aesthetic autonomy was both attractive and useful for late colonial and early postcolonial writers.
Undoubtedly, late colonial and early postcolonial writers attacked imperialism in both their creative and expository work. But this tendency to politicize their texts was complemented by the countervailing and even more potent demand to be recognized simply as artists, not as artists circumscribed by the pernicious logic of racial difference. the prospect of aesthetic autonomy — in particular, the idea that a work of art exists, and could circulate, without a specifically racialized character — would be used as a lever by late colonial and early postcolonial writers to challenge racial segregation in the fields of cultural production. (6)Kalliney is able to develop this idea in a way that portrays colonial and postcolonial writers as thoughtful, complex people, not just dupes of the maybe-well-intentioned-but-probably-exploitive modernists. In Kalliney's portrait, writers such as Claude McKay and Ayi Kwei Armah demonstrate a sympathy for certain tenets of modernism (and its institutions) as well as the shrewdness to recognize what within modernist ideas was useful. Such shrewdness allowed them not only to get published and recognized, but also to reconfigure modernist methods for their own purposes and circumstances.
Kalliney's approach is at odds with many past histories of modernism, colonial writers, and postcolonialism, as he notes: "In the not-too-distant past, it was possible to write about white and black modernism — and white and black aesthetic traditions — as if they were completely separate, even antagonistic, ventures" (7). But attention to writers' actual practices and communication, as well as to the behavior of various publishing institutions, shows complex networks and affiliations that influenced world literatures for decades:
...late colonial and early postcolonial writers, by making a strong case for the continuing relevance of aesthetic autonomy, became some of high modernism's most faithful and innovative readers from the 1930s forward. The relative lateness of the time period in this book — the years 1930-1970 being relatively late in the modernist game — will be a significant feature of my method, for it was during this period that high modernist principles were institutionalized on a global scale. Late colonial and early postcolonial intellectuals were instrumental in this process. (10)And it wasn't just that modernist techniques and concepts proved useful for writers from outside the (white) metropolis. The general sense among the London literati after World War II that English literature was now bereft of originality and vision opened a space for anglophone colonial writers to be, for a brief time, sought out and celebrated not merely as examples of an exotic other, but as purveyors of fresh aesthetics.
This is especially clear in Kalliney's discussion of Amos Tutuola (one of the best explorations of Tutuola's work that I've read). Tutuola's Palm Wine Drinkard was published by Faber & Faber, where T.S. Eliot was on the board, and the book's early reception in Britain — including a laudatory review by Dylan Thomas — celebrated the book as "linguistically spontaneous and imaginatively unprecedented. In short, they read his early texts as a self-standing project, quite unencumbered by literary precedents, owing little to the accomplishments of other writers" (149). This was heightened by Faber's choices in packaging and marketing the book, "reflecting a tension between the novel as an ethnographic curiosity and as a creatively original literary object" (160). They included a facsimile of a page from Tutuola's handwritten manuscript with some copyedits in the margins, which simultaneously encouraged a kind of ethnographic reading of the book and asserted the authenticity of the book's unconventional style. But they also did not provide an introduction by a famous white writer or provide any biographical information about Tutuola, and so allowed a certain autonomy for the text itself. (Later books would come with introductions and biographical information, as Faber tried to explain/control how to make sense of Tutuola's technique.)
Kalliney is skilled at setting up (admittedly schematic) comparisons to show the complexities and continuities of literary history. In some cases, his material is so well chosen and structured that he doesn't have to spell out the comparisons. For instance, by placing his chapter about Tutuola next to a chapter about the African Writers Series, Kalliney sets us up to compare the policies and proclivities of Faber & Faber with those of Heinemann, who published the AWS. Faber had no interest in "Africanness" or in anti-colonial politics, really. They didn't publish Tutuola because he was African or because his work offered opposition to colonialism — indeed, one of the persistent criticisms of Tutuola has been that his writing is too politically disengaged. Faber was attracted to Tutuola because he wasn't like any of their other writers, and so they could fit him into a general modernist critical frame that privileged novelty over all else. "Make it new" was holy writ. (What could be perceived as valuably "new" was, of course, culturally mediated, but that's a conversation for another day.) That holy writ would harm Tutuola later, though, as he wasn't seen to be developing from book to book but rather repeating himself, a cardinal sin.
The African Writers Series (AWS) was founded in 1962 by Heinemann Educational Books, and Kalliney does a fine job of showing how the AWS from its beginning relied on African teachers and schools for its success — not only were the sales figures for AWS titles until the early 1980s many times greater in Africa, and particularly Nigeria, than in Britain or the U.S., but the books themselves frequently portrayed students and schools within their narratives. Heinemann was able to expand the series by capitalizing on its already-existing infrastructure for textbooks. The effect was striking and continues to this day, even though the AWS doesn't really exist anymore and the height of its influence was forty years ago. Nonetheless, because of its unique position and resources, the AWS defined the idea of "African literature", for good or ill, and its most successful books remain the most prominent on high school and college syllabi throughout the English-speaking world, even as many of those books are now housed at different publishers.
Commonwealth of Letters begins with a discussion of "Modernist Networks and Late Colonial Intellectuals", then continues to a chapter on Nancy Cunard's Negro anthology and the place of anthologies as tools within both modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Because it ranges far and wide, this chapter is somewhat less satisfying than others, but it's a good starting place because it shows just how complex the various modernist networks were, and how distorting it can be to try to generalize about ideologies and affiliations. Kalliney begins with Cunard, then moves on to the ways Negro differs from other anthologies in its structure and content, then to modernist skepticism of anthologizing, to Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Ezra Pound. The breadth of the chapter reflects the breadth of Cunard's anthology (which is so huge it's hardly ever been reprinted in its complete form), and Kalliney does a good job of bringing the various strands back to Cunard — but an entire book could be written about the topic, so the chapter feels like an appetizer for what's to come, which in some ways it is. (It makes an interesting supplement to Jane Marcus's discussion of Cunard in Hearts of Darkness, a book that could stand as a kind of shadow companion to much that's in the first chapters of Commonwealth of Letters.)
Chapter 3 is in some ways the most provocative and eye-opening, mostly in how it re-situates F.R. Leavis. Yes, Leavis. Mr. Great Tradition. The title of the chapter is "For Continuity: FR Leavis, Kamau Braithwaite, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o", and Kalliney shares information from letters he discovered from 1953 between Kamau Brathwaite and Henry Swanzy, director of the BBC program Caribbean Voices:
Brathwaite was studying history at Cambridge, where Leavis taught most of his career, reaching perhaps the height of his influence in the years Brathwaite spent there. The young historian and aspiring poet had won an island scholarship in 1950, coincidentally going to England in the same year as George Lamming, VS Naipaul, and Sam Selvon. In the first note, Swanzy disagrees with some of Brathwaite's opinions about Caribbean literature, saying that Brathwaite's position was too derivative of IA Richards and FR Leavis.... In response to Swanzy, Brathwaite disputes the idea that Richards and Leavis could be lumped together, calling them "incompatible" figures. Apparently, Brathwaite had been supplementing his training in history by attending Leavis's lectures, going on to say, "I am Dr. Leavis' man — for the very good reason that he fell like manna to my search. Because in him I found a road to run my attitude to literature on." (76-77)Kalliney goes on to say that we might be tempted, as he was, to write this off as youthful enthusiasm, not something that had any long-lasting effect on Brathwaite's established critical approach, an approach which may seem like a flat-out rejection of Leavisite principles. But Kalliney thinks that, though of course Brathwaite was not an uncritical follower of Leavis, the traces are clear: both shared a strong interest in the world of T.S. Eliot, for instance. But far more importantly: "Postcolonial analysis of the English department would ultimately take its cue from Leavisite ambivalence about the proper function and chronic malfunctioning of disciplinary institutions. Postcolonial literature and literary criticism inherited Leavisite attitudes about the pleasures and unpleasantness associated with English departments" (77). Further:
With important modifications, Brathwaite and Ngugi both adopt the Leavisite stance toward capitalism. More important, both accept the basic Leavisite position on the value of folk culture and a living language. ... In fact, both Brathwaite and Ngugi urge other postcolonial writers to emulate the examples of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, doing for their own languages and cultures what members of the great tradition had done for metropolitan English. If they ultimately dispute the relevance of the great tradition, it is because the English literary canon, as it was taught in actually existing universities, is not Leavisite enough — that is, not sufficiently responsive to the living languages and culture of emergent postcolonial societies. (80)The fourth chapter, "Metropolitan Modernism and Its West Indian Interlocutors" is another chapter that ranges across so much material that the effect of reading it is vertiginous, though Kalliney does an especially fine job here of keeping markers in place and reiterating his central argument. Page after page offers insights, revelations, and revisions of received wisdom (e.g. "It is striking how often members of the 1950s literary establishment deemed West Indian intellectuals insiders, peers, and proteges rather than inferiors, hacks, or intruders" ). Again and again, Kalliney shows how, despite racism and colonialist assumptions, the literati felt a kind of common outsiderness (mostly aesthetic, but to some extent social as well) with writers from Africa and the Caribbean. This feeling could often be paternalistic, but it also proved quite useful to the young (post)colonial writers, especially the writers of the Windrush generation.
Despite its many valuable insights, this chapter needed more, it seems to me, on C.L.R. James. Kalliney offers a useful reading of James's cricket book, Beyond a Boundary, in the first chapter, and here in the fourth he notes the influence of James's novel Minty Alley, but there's so much more that could and, in my view, should be said about James in this particular context. But I suppose the same could be said about lots of things in any of these chapters, given the breadth of what Kalliney is discussing. But still, in a book about influences and the transition from modernism to postcolonialism, James seems to me to scream out for more attention.
Kalliney's penultimate chapter looks at the work of Jean Rhys, particularly her 1934 novel Voyage in the Dark (which she said she'd based at least partly on diaries from 20 years earlier), some of her short stories, and her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.
There remains ... a fine difference between Rhys and other white modernists on the question of a cross-racial imagination. In Voyage in the Dark, as in Rhys's memoirs, we encounter a young white woman who sympathizes with black feelings of alienation and even wants to be black — but realizes that she cannot swap her racial identity, either in real life or in her fiction. This marks a subtle but important difference from other interwar writers such as TS Eliot or Ezra Pound, who are liable to interject black vernacular speech into their work when it suits them. On the whole, white modernist writers tend to be far less relexive than Rhys in their cross-racial fantasies and in their use of black vernacular, rarely stopping to consider how black people might respond to their minstrelsy. With Rhys, we have a protagonist who wants to be black but finds herself blocked — perhaps a more transparent and ultimately more devastating rendition of the cross-racial imagination available to white modernist writers. This difference, subtle as it may be, reminds us that the early Rhys is not quite indistinguishable from Left Bank colleagues where racial attitudes are concerned. (233)That paragraph gives a good overview of Kalliney's view of Rhys, which is nuanced and even a bit conflicted, although that conflictedness is as much Rhys's as Kalliney's, for as he notes, her personal views of colonialism were similar to William Faulkner's views of Southern racism and segregation: a sense of horror at the injustices mixed with nostalgia for elements of the old white order, and ultimately a terror of revolution. Like Faulkner's, though, Rhys's fiction was more complex and intelligent than her own socio-political analysis, and Kalliney is mostly sensitive to the ways that her fiction transcended her personal limitations, especially later in life. It would have been interesting to see him address some of the ideas Delia Konzett offers regarding Rhys in Ethnic Modernisms: Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Dislocation, where Rhys is read a bit more sympathetically as a writer who ethnicizes whiteness, but Kalliney does a good job of exploring a lot of the Rhys scholarship while also fitting her work into his overall argument quite effectively. (And in any case, I'm biased toward Konzett's book because she's at my university, on my Ph.D. exam committee, and discusses in some depth my favorite Rhys novel, Good Morning, Midnight.)
"Why Rhys?" one might ask of Kalliney's choice to devote an entire chapter to this particular writer. Obviously, Rhys is a great bridge between modernism and post-colonialism, being a white woman born in the Caribbean, whose first literary identification was with the Left Bank of Paris in the late '20s and through the '30s. She was first championed by the über modernist Ford Maddox Ford (who named her and helped her figure out how to turn her writings into fiction), associated with various modernist circles, and then effectively disappeared — when the actress Selma Vaz Diaz wanted to adapt Good Morning, Midnight for the BBC in 1949, she had to take out a newspaper ad in search of Rhys. The legend of Jean Rhys was useful for marketing, however: "If Jean Rhys of the 1930s might appear blissfully unaware of herself as a commercial entity, Jean Rhys of the 1960s is a product of a carefully designed marketing strategy" (226-227). In Kalliney's telling, Rhys benefited significantly from the interest in postcolonial writers and postcolonial reading strategies, and Wide Sargasso Sea was especially attractive to white liberals in the metropolis who could feel perhaps more sympathy for the gently anti-imperial implications of the novel than for some of the more radical work of other, younger Caribbean writers of the era. Rhys was a cultural anti-imperialist, but not at all comfortable with nationalisms that rejected, and revolted against, the colonial order.
In many ways, the end of this chapter serves as a conclusion to Commonwealth of Letters, with the chapter that is labeled the conclusion being a kind of addendum. At the end of the chapter on Rhys, Kalliney again sums up his argument, beginning from the assertion that "postcolonial literature has been instrumental in reaffirming and redefining the status of experimentation in literature" (242). Rhys serves not only as a human link between modernism and postcolonialism, but also as beacon of changes to come. "Looking forward, the particularities of her career anticipate the institutional fracture of postwar anglophone literature" (243) — a fracture that Kalliney identifies as between politically radical work supported and published by small institutions and work that could be more easily accepted and promoted by major metropolitan institutions.
His concluding chapter offers a provocative comparison that shows the changes in the British and postcolonial literary landscape from the 1970s to now. The comparison is between the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) and the Booker Prize. The two endeavors contrast significantly, and Kalliney uses them to show the development of his main argument:
The example of CAM shows how the modernist doctrine of aesthetic autonomy — especially the idea that the arts should be relatively independent of material considerations and instrumental politics — had become, by the last decades of the century, closely associated with minority arts initiatives. By contrast, the example of the Booker Prize shows how a belated effort to affirm cultural bonds across the commonwealth could turn the racial competitiveness of literary culture to lasting commercial use. In the process, it would help attenuate the claims of autonomy so often projected by members of the literary professions at midcentury. (247)In discussing the Booker, Kalliney looks closely John Berger's controversial acceptance speech in 1972, when Berger both stood up for aesthetic autonomy and highlighted the prize sponsors' connections to, and profits from, imperialism. This controversy, Kalliney says, strengthened the prize's public image by making it seem like something worth fighting over, and later controversies only helped to increase its apparent cultural importance and to assert the importance of London to literary culture.
Each Booker winner is immediately hailed as a national asset, every victorious novel seen to enhance the cultural prestige of the winner's place of origin. Moreover, the annual award ceremony provides a convenient platform for critics to ponder the state of metropolitan fiction. Not surprisingly, these annual meditations often rehearse arguments that have been in place for half a century or more: metropolitan writing is bland and timid, and yet there is hope that it will be reinvigorated by its encounter with the fresh, adventurous writing arriving yearly to challenge the place of the former imperial masters. (256)The ending of the book feels a bit rushed, because in trying to show how things have changed since the mid-20th century, Kalliney can only gesture toward the many forces affecting writing and its distribution and reception. It's too bad, for instance, that Kalliney doesn't have the space to extend his discussion to the Caine Prize for African Writing or to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, or, well, any thousand other topics. But of course that's not the purpose of the book or of this final chapter, which exists to help us see how Kalliney's argument can be extended.
Though this post has become vastly longer than I expected or intended, I have really only touched the surface of Kalliney's arguments, and have quoted from him as much as possible to try to reduce the inevitable distortion of those arguments through summary. Commonwealth of Letters seems to me to make an excellent contribution to our understanding of modernist, colonial, and postcolonial literatures. Its insistence on highlighting complexities only shows how impossible it is to encapsulate these literatures in one study; Kalliney's book can't, and shouldn't, stand alone — it needs to be read alongside such books as Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literatures by Yogita Goyal, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain by Christian Høgsbjerg, various works by Anna Snaith, and all sorts of others.
But that's partly Kalliney's point: reducing such large, complex, contradictory history to offhand critical clichés just won't work anymore. As his own book strains against the limits of its argument, it shows the (perhaps necessary, unavoidable) dangers of imposing an argument onto the messy material of cultural history. Cultural history has been not only created, but lived, and lives are slippery. Somewhere around halfway through reading Commonwealth of Letters, I stopped trying to decide whether I agreed or disagreed with Kalliney's argument, and instead read that argument as a template, as one lens to see some of the landscape. It's a provocative, productive way of seeing, and it brings continuities into view that have not been visible before. No vantage point is omniscient; nor should we expect it to be.
My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don't, streets that are friendly, streets that aren't, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don't, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won't, and so on.
—Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight