Brendan de Caires: “Windrush Moderns,” a review


Here is an interesting item from November 2015 [thanks to Peter Jordens]: Brendan de Caires (for The Caribbean Review of Books) reviews Migrant Modernism: Postwar London and the West Indian Novel, by J. Dillon Brown (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics, by Peter J. Kalliney (Oxford University Press, 2013). Here are just a few excerpts of “Windrush moderns.”  

Poised in the silence of a BBC studio, a memorable 1942 photograph shows an elegantly dressed woman seated at a table, arranging her typescript for a broadcast. T.S. Eliot sits next to her, the fingers of his right hand flexed in what may be a hint of impatience. George Orwell half-crouches over the back of Eliot’s chair. Across the table stands a young William Empson — perhaps the most influential literary critic of the century — perched above two other writers who are readying themselves for a reading. When you realise the central figure in this tableau, the woman shuffling papers next to Eliot, is Una Marson — Jamaican poet and feminist, producer of the BBC’s West Indian Programme and later its groundbreaking Caribbean Voices — the long overdue critical interest which this period of cultural cross-fertilisation is now receiving seems inevitable. (Others seated at the table include M.J. Tambimuttu, editor of Poetry, and the Indian writers Mulk Raj Anand and V.K. Narayana Menon.)

The photograph adorns the cover of Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters, an authoritative survey of Modernism’s meanings for key postcolonial writers, but it also foreshadows much of what takes place in Migrant Modernism, J. Dillon Brown’s account of how canonical West Indian writers — named the Windrush generation after the ship that brought the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to Britain — appropriated the technical and aesthetic breakthroughs of the High Moderns (Eliot, Joyce, Pound, et al) for their own cultural and political ends.

Kalliney and Brown both invoke the idea of a “cultural field” — taken from French scholar Pierre Bourdieu — to chart British Modernism’s impact on the margins of its former empire. In Brown’s gloss, this is “the array of institutional structures through which culture, in a given social grouping, comes into being, including [in Bourdieu’s phrasing] ‘not only the direct producers of the work in its materiality (artist, writer, etc) but also the producers of the meaning and value of the work — critics, publishers, gallery directors, and the whole set of agents whose combined efforts produce consumers capable of knowing and recognising the work of art as such.’” [. . .]

[Una Marson (seated at center) with T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, and other writers in a BBC studio, 1942]

For full review, see

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