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George (Eric) Lamming Biography

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Nationality: Barbadian. Born: Carrington Village, 1927. Education: Roebuck Boys' School; Combermere School. Career: Teacher in Trinidad, 1946-50; moved to England, 1950; host of book review programme, BBC West Indian Service, London, 1951. Writer-in-residence, University of the West Indies, Kingston, 1967-68. Coeditor of Barbados and Guyana independence issues of New World Quarterly, Kingston, 1965 and 1967. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1954; Kenyon Review fellowship, 1954; Maugham award, 1957; Canada Council fellowship, 1962. D. Litt.: University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, 1980.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

In the Castle of My Skin. London, Joseph, and New York, McGraw Hill, 1953.

The Emigrants. London, Joseph, 1954: New York, McGraw Hill, 1955.

Of Age and Innocence. London, Joseph, 1958; New York, Schocken, 1981.

Season of Adventure. London, Joseph, 1960; Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Water with Berries. London, Longman, 1971; New York, Holt Rinehart, 1972.

Natives of My Person. London, Longman, and New York, Holt Rinehart, 1972.

Uncollected Short Stories

"David's Walk," in Life and Letters (London), November 1948.

"Of Thorns and Thistles" and "A Wedding in Spring," in West Indian Stories, edited by Andrew Salkey. London, Faber, 1960.

"Birds of a Feather," in Stories from the Caribbean, edited by Andrew Salkey. London, Elek, 1965; as Island Voices, New York, Liveright, 1970.

"Birthday Weather," in Caribbean Literature, edited by G.R. Coulthard. London, University of London Press, 1966.

Other

The Pleasures of Exile. London, Joseph, 1960; Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Influencia del Africa en las literaturas antillanas, with Henry Bangou and René Depestre. Montevideo, Uruguay, I.L.A.C., 1972.

The Most Important People, with Kathleen Drayton. Bridgetown, Barbados, Drayton, 1981.

Western Education and the Caribbean Intellectual: Coming, Coming, Coming Home. New York, House of Nehesi, 1995.

Coming, Coming Home: Conversations II: Monographs. Philipsburg, St. Martin, House of Nehesi, 1995.

Editor, Cannon Shot and Glass Beads: Modern Black Writing. London, Pan, 1974.

Editor, On the Canvas of the World. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago Institute of the West Indies, 1999.

*

Bibliographies:

George Lamming: A Select Bibliography, Cave Hill, Barbados, University of the West Indies Main Library, 1980.

Critical Studies:

The Novels of George Lamming by Sandra Pouchet Paquet, London, Heinemann, 1982; Anancy in the Great House: Ways of Reading West Indian Fiction by Joyce Jonas, New York and London, Greenwood Press, 1990; Caliban in Exile: The Outsider in Caribbean Fiction by Margaret Paul Joseph, New York and London, Greenwood Press, 1992; Caliban's Curse: George Lamming and the Revisioning of History by Supriya Nair. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: PlayMeet Me at Golden Hill, Barbados, 1974.

* * *

The critical reception of George Lamming's first four novels fell short of their real merits and originality. It is often said that Lamming demands too much of the reader; it might be truer to say that the reader demands too little of Lamming. West Indian fiction has often been distinguished by a certain energy and rhetorical glow but not, except in the work of Lamming and Wilson Harris, by much complexity of form or texture. Right from his first book, In the Castle of My Skin, Lamming made it clear that the real complexity of West Indian experience demanded some adequate response of its writers. He has since elaborated this view in an important essay called "The Negro Writer and His World," where he wrote: "To speak of his [the Negro Writer's] situation is to speak of a general need to find a center as well as a circumference which embraces some reality whose meaning satisfies his intellect and may prove pleasing to his senses. But a man's life assumes meaning first in relation to other men …" In the Castle of My Skin may at first appear to be an autobiography of childhood, but it soon becomes apparent that the book is also the collective autobiography of a Barbadian village moving through the break-up of the old plantation system dominated by the Great House and into the new age of nationalism, industrial unrest and colonial repression. The four boys who stand at the center of the book are given a more or less equal importance though it is "George" who ultimately registers the meaning of their disparate experiences as they are driven asunder by education, travel, and emerging social distinctions.

The collective quality already evident in this, the most personal of all Lamming's books, is more strongly present in The Emigrants. Here the portrait is of one boatload of the black emigrants (the title is significant, for it stresses what they leave as well as what they find) who flocked from the Caribbean to Britain between 1950 and 1962. On the boat the emigrants discover a new identity as "West Indians," only to lose it again as they fly centrifugally apart under the stresses of life in an alien culture.

The Emigrants is the saddest of all Lamming's books, because there is almost no focus of hope amid so much disillusionment and despair. By contrast both Of Age and Innocence and Season of Adventure are powerfully positive books in which what is shed is a set of values adhering to the older generation, those who are unable to match the pace and tendency of the times. Of Age and Innocence is set in San Cristobal, a fictional Caribbean island colony rapidly approaching independence. The dominant generation of islanders is unable to break away from its class and racial identities to work together for a new society which will redeem the past of slavery and colonialism, but it is throughout juxtaposed to the generation of its children, who struggle towards that meaning which the nationalist leader Shepherd has glimpsed and then lost again.

I had always lived in the shadow of a meaning which others had placed on my presence in the world, and I had played no part at all in making that meaning, like a chair which is wholly at the mercy of the idea guiding the hand of the man who builds it…. But like the chair, I have played no part at all in making that meaning which others use to define me completely.

Shepherd is destroyed by the forces of the past, but the children look out through the flames of destruction which end the novel towards a future they have already presaged in their games. At the center of Season of Adventure stands another unawakened character, the "big-shot coloured" girl Fola, whose father is a West Indian police officer imbued with all the old ideas of order, dominance, and segregation. A visit to a Voduñ ceremony awakens her to the real capacity of her nature for self-discovery and self-renewal. This awakening by ancestral drums is in itself a cliché of Caribbean literature, but here it escapes banality by the intensity of Lamming's lyrical style and the bizarre violence of much of the action. Season of Adventure is in some ways the finest of his novels, just as The Emigrants is certainly the weakest. Yet the hesitancy which overtakes the drums at the end of the novel, in the very moment of their triumph as the expression of popular values, is analogous to the problem of language Lamming faces in projecting a West Indian culture which will be truly united, consistent and free: "But remember the order of the drums … for it is the language which every nation needs if its promises and its myths are to become a fact."

After a silence of more than ten years, Lamming published two new novels within a year. These were powerfully contrasted in style and theme. Water with Berries is superficially a naturalistic novel about three West Indian artists living difficult and ever more lonely lives in modern London. Gradually, however (and the quotation of Caliban in the title gives a clue), the reader becomes aware that this is a study of what happens when Caliban comes to Prospero's original home. The revenges of history work themselves out through characters who are helpless to prevent completing the bizarre and violent patterns of the past. Each of the friends is an aspect of Caliban and each passes through an extreme personal crisis at the novel's end. But Derek, erect upon the stage before a howling audience, having completed the rape of Miranda at last, or Teeton, erect upon a northern island after destroying his last links with the racial past, have at least sketched the possibilities of freedom from these tyrannies of history.

Natives of My Person is more of an extended reverie upon certain dominant themes in Atlantic mythology—the demonic captain, the slave-ship, the imprisoned Amerindian prince, the crew variously haunted by tragedy and terror—which are treated like themes in music. The style is deliberately wrought from the timbers of seventeenth-century maritime prose, in which this mythology finds its roots. Hence the novel voyages freely in the dimension of space-time, deriving its structure simply from the musical resolution of its dominant themes. This is a work of great beauty, originality, and difficulty, which may finally prove to be Lamming's most important achievement.

—Gerald Moore

Margo Lanagan (1960-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Sidelights [next] [back] Lester L. Laminack (1956-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights

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