- Reverse Imperial Ethnography and C. L. R. James's London Writing
When C. L. R. James arrived in London in 1932, he had with him two complete manuscripts and a commission to write about the city. The Life of Captain Cipriani was published that same year and appeared in abridged form, as The Case for West Indian Self-Government, with the Hogarth Press the following year. Minty Alley, a novel set among the "ordinary people" of Trinidad, was published by another London house in 1936. Both books have attracted significant commentary from scholars of postcolonial history interested in the formation of this "paradigmatic intellectual of the twentieth-century black Atlantic."1 History has been less attentive to James's writings about London, published in the Port of Spain Gazette within six months of his arrival.2 These essays present James encountering the city and its people in ways that both mirror and invert tropes of flânerie familiar to modernist literature. In spite of the essays' resonance with canonical modernism, including a focus on Bloomsbury, and despite James's credentialing by the Hogarth Press, they have gone curiously unremarked in modernist studies. In these essays one sees a giant of anticolonial thought first encountering the metropolitan culture he saw as crucial to his formation.
Exceptionally important in James's account of London, and to his cultivation of narrative authority at the purported center of both empire and intellectual life, are his observations of Englishwomen. The prominence of Englishwomen in these essays—both as privileged subjects for observation and as integral to James's construction of an authoritative narrative persona—not only reshapes our understanding of James but also suggests the under-acknowledged thematic and formal significance of women [End Page 311] in modernist-era writing, including in little-known metropolitan writing by colonial authors. The women James observes are telling features of the "great branch of western civilisation" he assesses, and they are unexpectedly integral to his developing critical stance (James, Letters from London, 111).
The surprising neglect of James's London essays is instructive of the need for continued recovery of writing by people of color in imperial Britain prior to World War II. Despite a number of groundbreaking literary studies and the field's indisputable expansion, modernist studies is yet in the early days of reckoning with the ethnic and cultural diversity of early twentieth-century British letters.3 Attention to Black and Asian writers within Britain often begins with the Windrush generation, named for the SS Empire Windrush that, in 1948, brought the first mass influx of migrants from the British West Indies (at the invitation of the British government). Important books by J. Dillon Brown, Jed Esty, Simon Gikandi, and Peter Kalliney have helped to make Sam Selvon and George Lamming, among other writers active in postwar Britain, familiar names in modernist studies.4 This welcome attention to writers of the Windrush generation, and to postcolonial writers broadly, however, should not distract us from the fact that we still know relatively little about the work of earlier writers, those who were writing from positions of racial otherness during the synchronous heights of imperial expansion and canonical British modernism. Their works were important, if often forgotten, precursors of postcolonial metropolitan writing that have much to teach us about urban modernity's relationship with gender and race.
As the technical and ideological center of the British Empire, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century London drew students, intellectuals, government officials, and tourists from around the world. The accounts some of these migrants and travelers wrote of their experiences in the metropole are interesting in part for their ambivalence. Many of London's visitors and new residents had received a colonial education that cultivated a sense of knowledge and proprietary regard for the imperial capital. Finding themselves perceived as strangers in the "mother country," they often experienced a disorienting sense of estrangement. Colonial people of color were particularly alienated within the metropolis, as the average person on the street evinced little awareness of their right to be there, let alone of their reasonable expectation to feel a sense of belonging. Yet, coming as they did before...