The introduction to Mariners, Castaways and Renegades, a 1953 work on Herman Melville by the activist, critic, and novelist C. L. R. James (1901–1989), is electrifying to the Melville lover. It starts with an indelible line: “The miracle of Herman Melville is this: that a hundred years ago in two novels, Moby-Dick and Pierre, and two or three stories, he painted a picture of the world in which we live, which is to this day unsurpassed.” That’s a huge claim, but readers of Moby-Dick know it to be as true today as it was when James’s book was first published. James goes on to write that “a great part” of the volume he is introducing was produced while he was held in detention by the immigration authorities on Ellis Island as he was being deported from the U.S. On Ellis Island he found, “like Melville’s Pequod … a miniature of all the nations of the world and all sections of society,” and he synthesized his American experience with the themes and insights of Moby-Dick. I’ve written recently about Moby-Dick’s significance to modern discussions of race, and I was pleased to come across the scholarship of James, one of the novel’s great interpreters, who was neither white nor American but born on Trinidad when it was a British colony. If Melville shows America as multiracial and entwined, James pans out to show it also as hopelessly entangled in the whale lines of the greater world.
Deservedly, James’s work is undergoing a revival at the moment. His only novel, Minty Alley, was reissued earlier this year as part of Bernardine Evaristo’s series with Penguin Books, Black Britain: Writing Back. His other major works include The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a still-authoritative history of the world’s only successful slave-led revolution, and Beyond a Boundary, a study on cricket and culture that has been called one of the greatest sports books of all time as well as an important entry in the discourse of postcolonialism. Even many of his minor works are back in print. Read More