James Davis. Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 440 S. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-15784-1.
Reviewed by Anja Werner
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (March, 2016)
J. Davis: Eric Walrond
A native of British Guiana, Eric Walrond (1898-1966) spent his childhood and youth in Barbados and Panama before he moved on to leave an indelible mark on the Harlem Renaissance. In the end, he lived most of his adult life in Europe. According to James Davis, two main ideas permeate the work of this transatlantic Black intellectual: “a thorough-going skepticism toward monolithic notions of race” and “a desire to identify and challenge white supremacy,” both of which may be linked to his Caribbean background (p. 8). Walrond’s life and writing consequently illustrate that the Harlem Renaissance represented a multitude of Black Diasporan voices that connected – and connect – different regions of the Americas such as the West Indies and the U.S.A. with Africa and Europe.
Walrond was almost forgotten in his later years. He was rediscovered at the time of his death in the context of the US Civil Rights movements. In recent years, scholars have become newly interested in his life and writing. See, for instance, Louis J. Parascandola (ed.), Winds Can Wake up the Dead: An Eric Walrond Reader, Detroit 1998; Louis J. Parascandola / Carl A. Wade (eds.), Eric Walrond: The Critical Heritage, Kingston 2012. However, as James Davis argues in his new book on Walrond, “gaps and silences” complicate the researcher’s task of writing his biography (p. 355). Davis’ monograph consequently draws heavily on Walrond’s only book-length publication “Tropic Death” (1926) as well as on his numerous short stories and articles. An alphabetical bibliography of Walrond’s publications is listed in the appendix (it is somewhat puzzling that for “Tropic Death” the year of publication is given as 2013, see pp. 398–402, here p. 401).
The challenges of the source material might be responsible for Davis’ apparent indecision whether he wanted to engage in literary criticism or write a biography. Of course, one does not necessarily have to exclude the other. But while in the title and introduction Davis emphasizes the idea of exploring Walrond’s life, for the most part of the book he heavily paraphrases Walrond’s publications and features lengthy quotations. In the end, Davis does not succeed in merging his discussion of Walrond’s writings and life into a synthesis. The reader does get a sense of Walrond and his importance for reconsidering the Harlem Renaissance as a transnational phenomenon, a theme that is worthwhile to be further explored in the future. See, for instance, Manning Marable / Vanessa Agard-Jones (eds.), Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line, New York 2008; Kendahl Radcliffe / Jennifer Scott / Anja Werner, Anywhere But Here: Black Intellectuals in the Atlantic World and Beyond, Jackson 2015. However, Davis remains on the surface. He merely presents hypotheses but does not systematically test them on the basis of quotations from Walrond’s writings. While informative, somewhat thought-provoking, and needed, Davis’ monograph does not live up to its promise.
Davis structured the book strictly chronological, which means that a number of themes keep reappearing without being explored as comprehensive, larger ideas. One example is the question of homosexuality. Walrond married young in New York. In 1923, however, after only three years of marriage, he sent his pregnant Jamaican wife with two toddlers back to the Caribbean (p. 51). In his later years, he had little contact with his three adult daughters (pp. 307, 350, 351). The subject of his homosexuality appears somewhat out of the blue on page 128 in a subchapter with the obscure title “The Night Side of the Soul: Cabaret Writing and the Politics of Respectability,” which sporadically tries to tackle the subject of same-sex love in the context of the Harlem Renaissance (pp. 133, 143). It would have been intriguing to analyze the meaning(s) of homosexuality with respect to the Harlem Renaissance more thoroughly against the background of the changing interpretations and acceptance of homosexuality in the past. See, for instance, Francis Mark Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality, Baltimore 2011 (first published in 1996); James Kelley, Blossoming in Strange New Forms: Male Homosexuality and the Harlem Renaissance, in: Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 80.4 (1997), pp. 498–517. The fate of Walrond’s “The Big Ditch” – a Black human-interest history of the Panama Canal – provides another example of Davis’ dropping bits and pieces of a theme rather than discussing it comprehensively. Davis observes that Walrond “had a lot of nerve applying for a Guggenheim fellowship in 1927” (p. 216) in order to advance that project but succeeded and in 1928 embarked on a research trip to the Caribbean that eventually brought him to France (pp. 220–221). Walrond never quite finished the book. He eventually published a serialized sized-down version in the Roundway Review in 1956/1957 (“The Second Battle,” parts i–xv), a journal which he had helped to found during his five-year-stay at Roundway Psychiatric Hospital in England (pp. 326–331). Walrond’s struggle with writing a history of the Panama Canal could have been told in a much more coherent form if it had been written in a focused chapter similar to the one on “Tropic Death,” but chronology was in the way of such an approach.
Davis is at times easygoing with his sources, such as when he discusses the two main forms of literature on Panama in Walrond’s time. In this instance, he does not provide any references except for a source concerning the concept of “tropicality” (p. 27). When Davis points out that Walrond “anticipated what scholars would later observe about the force of racialization and the strategies West Indians developed to negotiate it”, sources and examples do not follow (p. 46). Moreover, examples and contexts are missing at times and then again are simply touched upon without being developed further. For instance, discussing the reception of “Tropic Death,” Davis argues that “a number of messages (…) may not have been available to its initial audience,” then mentions Walrond’s pronounced “critique of European colonialism and neocolonialism,” and already moves on to the next point (p. 181). Twice he mentions race riots and a gang of “teddy boys” that terrorized parts of London in 1958 without providing references or explanations (pp. 339, 345). Occasional gems are somewhat hidden, such as a remark on Walrond’s contributions to a “linguistic ‘revolution’” by depicting Caribbean languages way ahead of his times (p. 169). This statement is buried in a subchapter on “An Ear for the Tropics” (pp. 164–171).
Taken together, the book under review provides food for thought but on the whole disappoints. Rather than enlightening the reader about transnational voices of Blackness in Walrond’s writings and their meanings today, it leaves the stale aftertaste of yet another book that was published in haste before its completion. Such misfortunes happen when the laws of a market economy rule scholarship, and the pressure to publish is stronger than the pressure to make a lasting scholarly contribution.
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Anja Werner. Review of Davis, James, Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean.
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