- The Inhospitable Muse:Locating Creole Identity in James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane
Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them, short of hanging.—Samuel Johnson on West Indian slave owners1
James Grainger's self-proclaimed "West Indian georgic," The Sugar-Cane (1764), is perhaps best remembered for the circumstances of its introduction to the high literary echelons of London, rather than for any memorable versification of Caribbean exoticism within the poem itself. In a now infamous anecdote, James Boswell records the story of the poem's private debut in the London home of Sir Joshua Reynolds, as Grainger unveils his work before such celebrated luminaries as Samuel Johnson, William Shenstone, and Thomas Percy, among others:
Having talked of Dr. Grainger's Sugar Cane, I mentioned to him Mr. Langton's having told me that this poem, when read in Manuscript at Sir Joshua Reynolds', had made all the assembled wits burst into a laugh, when, after much blank-verse pomp the poet began a new paragraph thus: "Now, Muse, let's sing of rats." And what increased the ridicule was, that one of the company, who slily overlooked the reader, perceived that the word had been originally mice, and had been altered to rats as more dignified.2
This scene of Grainger being mercilessly ribbed and teased by his transatlantic contemporaries bears testimony to Johnson's overall observation that "the subject, Sir, cannot be made poetical."3 The work went on to receive moderate success as a didactic poem describing the cultivation of the sugar cane, despite its initial bathetic reception. Yet the incident's clear overtones of humiliation and dismissal on the part of the "assembled wits" veils the concomitant presence of another productive context through which to examine [End Page 67] the poem. Grainger left his West Indian residence in St. Kitts for England in October 1763 for the express purpose of presenting his poem to his literary brethren for eagerly solicited approval. In an April 1763 correspondence, Grainger writes to his friend Percy that "I have now completed the Cane Piece, such as I could wish it to appear; but I shall not transcribe either my corrections or additions for England without first hearing from you."4 Clearly, Grainger craved the cultural approbation of London's writing establishment as the ultimate validation of his poetry.
The fact that Grainger had traveled a long distance from his overseas home to visit his friends in London creates another dynamic relation through which to view his poem: that of a foreign, Creole guest standing in the home of his native English host. Grainger's formal presence in Reynolds's home creates a dimension of vulnerability for the Creole writer seeking cultural approbation from the English writers who agree to hear his reading: he literally stands at the mercy and whim of his hosts. This paper seeks to read the poem through a paradigm of colonial hospitality, which the monumental awkwardness of the poem's initial reception to the metropole so convincingly reveals. A careful analysis of the work reveals that the poem's ideological motivations internalize the very same anxiety of "belonging" and overseas acceptance which the colonial West Indian Creole craved, as a cultural outsider. The poem contains numerous manifestations of hospitable conventions which show Grainger's attempt to establish hospitality as a deliberate practice of Creole cultural legitimation as well as a strategy of colonial management. Jim Egan suggests that "once physical location loses its monopoly on identity formation, Grainger asks readers to look 'elsewhere' for the source of their Britishness, and I would like to argue that this 'elsewhere' lies in the definition of hospitable relations."5 Analyzing Grainger's poem with specific reference to how he manages to transform an alien, hostile landscape into a familiar, hospitable one reveals much about the cultural desire which informs the legitimization of the Creole, and the forces which refused to validate its existence as anything but an aberrant and degraded version of the center. A reading of the poem through the lens of hospitable relations therefore brings us one step closer to solving the...