The Literary Effects of Empire

10 Sep

I’ve been hard on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, in the past, so I wanted to point out some quality posts, many of them from Kwame Dawes. In his latest post, Dawes discusses a recent column by V.S. Naipaul on another West Indies Nobel Laurete, Derek Walcott. As Dawes notes, Naipaul’s praise for Walcott “is oddly muted, and somewhat underhand.” For Naipaul, there is no “there” there in the West Indies; what the empire left behind wasn’t enough to make literary greatness:

It was something we with literary ambitions from these islands all had to face: small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies. And these islands were very small, infinitely smaller than Ibsen’s Norway. Their literary possibilities, like their economic possibilities, were as narrow as their human possibilities. Ibsen’s Norway, provincial as it was, had bankers, editors, scholars, high-reaching people. There was nothing of this human wealth in the islands.

Naipaul’s assessment, concisely summarized in his oft repeated assertion that “Nothing was created in the British West Indies,” strikes me cynical and deterministic. Although it’s true that the greater the level of economic development, the easier it is to support the arts (a better economy means more money and more time for cultural products), Naipaul misses the extent to which an empire leaves the tools of literary greatness behind as it retreats back toward the core. Human wealth is necessary to propagate cultural products, but not to create them. A Caribbean resembling Ibsen’s Norway would be more likely to produce a Walcott or Naipaul, but all it takes is one Walcott to remake the landscape of English language poetry.

Consider Walcott’s response to Naipaul (from a 1986 Paris Review interview): “Perhaps it should read that ‘Nothing was created by the British in the West Indies’. Maybe that’s the answer.” It is indeed the answer, and Walcott makes the reason clear earlier in the same interview when he states, “I am a Caribbean writer. The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.” Once given the tools of an English writer–language and an education–a post-colonial writer is free to make the language new, and make work of as much creative force as previous, European generations.

Walcott’s success demonstrates that out of the remnants of empire and slavery, voices can emerge that become models for the former empire (or those in America who speak the language). It isn’t only that Walcott had to leave St. Lucia to have his work recognized (though to some extent, he did) it’s that Walcott truly is of a piece with Milton and Marlowe, and he is of the Caribbean too. The empire can’t help being influenced in return by those it has conquered.

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