Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 123-127
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Not Without Love:
Donald E. Pease
In the course of her extremely eventful life, Constance Webb acted on the New York Stage, she posed for Salvador Dali (with whom she also had a very brief and very comical affair), and she was a model for Tom Kelley, the photographer who would become famous for the early pictures of Marilyn Monroe. But Constance Webb is perhaps best known as the woman to whom the Trinidadian activist C.L.R. James addressed the love letters that Anna Grimshaw edited and collected in Special Delivery: The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb: 1939-1948.
Webb met James in a Los Angeles Church in 1939 where he delivered a talk on "The Negro Question." At the time, Constance Webb was only eighteen and C.L.R. James was thirty-eight years old, the author of three internationally acclaimed books on the history of Marxist revolution and a world class lecturer. During the first five years of their relationship, James conducted an aggressive letter-writing campaign to win her love. Within the space of a single letter, which sometimes extended to fifty papers, James became by turns a comrade in solidarity with Constance's struggles against social injustice, a lover who wanted access to her most intimate feelings, and a teacher who explained the complex dimensions of their relationship in terms of the Marxist dialectic. When they both found themselves in New York City in 1945, James was surprised to discover that Ms. Webb remained indifferent to his advances. But by the summer of 1946 C.L.R. James and Constance Webb were living together in New York. And in May, 1946, they were married in Fort Lee.
In his 2001 biography of James, Farrukh Dhondy described the nearly two hundred letters which James wrote to Constance Webb during the first ten years of their relationship as the medium through which James discovered aspects of himself that he had repressed in his role as a political activist.1 [End Page 123] James signed his letters to Constance Webb with his real name rather than the pseudonym, W.R. Johnson. Constance Webb was the inspiration for American Civilization, which James wrote as a love letter in which he imagined the American way of life that he wished to share with her. She produced for James an engagement with American culture that made him feel real.
Despite the important role she played in shaping James's understanding of American culture, however, before the publication of Not Without Love, only James's account of their relationship was known. In a letter that he sent in October of 1945 James informed Constance Webb that he had torn up all of her photographs and destroyed almost all of the letters she had addressed to him.
James's biographer has interpreted James's elimination of Webb's side of the correspondence as continuous with his need to prevent her from contradicting the romantic ideal he had imagined in her place. According to Dhondy, the letters constituted a love relationship both of whose sides were James's production. Since C.L.R. James had "constructed the perfect woman" in the image of James's desire, Dhondy explained, it really did not matter whether she responded or not. James was not in relation with Constance Webb but with her idealization.2
After thus describing the Constance Webb represented within James's letters as a figment of his desire, however, Dhondy offered an account of Constance Webb that reduced her character to what she wanted from her relationship with C.L.R. James: "Who is she? She is a young, white Los Angeles student revolutionary who very much wants to be part of the fight against American injustice, wants to be part of the movement that supports and nurtures the oppressed, part of something international, part of history. She also...