- “Hard Reading”:US Empire and Black Modernist Aesthetics in Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death
In 1926 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, fiction writer and journalist Eric Walrond published Tropic Death, a book of short stories set entirely in Central America and the Caribbean during the United States’ construction of the Panama Canal. A native of British Guiana, Walrond moved to New York in 1918 and became an active figure on the New York literary scene. Tropic Death was his highly anticipated book-length debut. In an enthusiastic review, W. E. B. Du Bois called Tropic Death a human document of deep significance and great promise and a distinct contribution to Negro literature: “Here is a book of ten stories of death, which, with impressionistic pen and little plot, show forth with singular vividness the life of black laborers of the West Indies. There is superstition, unusual dialect, singular economic glimpse; but above all, there is truth and human sympathy” (152). Du Bois’s review highlights Tropic Death’s twofold contribution. First, the text performs a significant geographical shift by locating its portrait of black migration and labor in neither Harlem nor the American South but in the Caribbean basin. Second, the text’s artistic innovations—its “impressionistic pen and little plot”—establish Walrond’s reputation as one of the key stylists of the movement, a bright new light of Harlem’s avant-garde.
Despite this promising debut, Tropic Death fell into obscurity1 and remained mostly out of print for decades until recent recuperations by Louis Parascandola, Carl A. Wade, Arnold Rampersad, and James Davis.2 The problem has not been one of total critical neglect, as Walrond is often featured in major anthologies and literary histories of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, Tropic Death has suffered from a lack of sustained critical engagement despite scholarly claims to the text’s significance. Some reasons for this lack of engagement are arguably foreshadowed in Du Bois’s review.3 Tropic Death’s focus on “black laborers of the West Indies” (Du Bois 152) does not fit neatly into US-bound themes that have until recently shaped narratives of the Harlem Renaissance.4 Appropriately, then, efforts to recuperate Walrond have drawn from recent work on the transnational contours of the New Negro Movement, exemplified by Brent Hayes Edwards’s [End Page 96] turn to the cultures of black internationalism in The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (2003). Davis’s recent biography makes a significant contribution in this vein. As Davis observes, in light of “a transnational understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and a diaspora approach to Caribbean writing—Walrond’s significance takes on a different cast” (5).
While the internationalist thrust of diaspora studies offers a useful context for reading Tropic Death, the book’s specific orientation is the western hemisphere. To attend to the specificities of Tropic Death’s transnationalism is to note its preoccupation with the specter of US imperialism. Indeed, scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance, even when informed by a transnational perspective, has just begun to address the specific question of US imperialism as it emerges from the pens of black writers. Such a focus illuminates my reading of Tropic Death, in which US empire emerges as a key framework for understanding the black experience in the first decades of the twentieth century. Looming at the center of the text is the construction of the Panama Canal, initiated by France in the 1880s and completed by the United States from 1904 to 1914. Canal construction precipitated one of the largest mass migrations the region had ever seen as workers from across the Caribbean flocked to the isthmus in search of the higher pay promised in the Canal Zone.
Tropic Death revises the dominant narrative of canal construction as exemplary of prosperity and progress, revealing its paradoxical role as both a catalyst of cultural exchange and a symbol of uncanny modern violence. Death reoccurs with grim certainty in each of the book’s settings, which move from the Panama Canal Zone at Colón to the shores of Jamaica and Honduras, and from bustling industrial worksites to obscure “backwoods...