George Lamming (1927–2022) was the last West Indian. I mean by this not only that he was the last genuine regionalist, the last intellectual and artist for whom the British colonies of the Caribbean could only be viably thought together as a single cultural-political whole, but also that he was the last great thinker of the idea of West Indian sovereignty. Lamming is often remembered primarily for his first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, that singular bildungsroman of Black and Caribbean awakening, published in 1953. And in terms of the semi-autobiographical narrative fiction of the modern Caribbean racial self in the process of coming of age—the story of G—this is completely understandable. But to my mind, Lamming’s finest literary achievement is to have helped us explore the challenges of decolonization and the coming national sovereignty. And in this respect, the great novels are Of Age and Innocence, published in 1958, and Season of Adventure, published in 1960. These, as Lamming himself has said, really constitute one continuous reflection on the “colonial regime in its dying stages.”1 Lamming belongs to that generation of colonials—which includes, among others, Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi—who were striving to imagine a future from within a present that was breaking uncertainly from the past.
As everybody who reads his work knows, Lamming was an artist of vernacular language. Dialogue is the medium of his novels. But the verbal discourse that structures them is not straightforwardly Creole, because what interested Lamming was less the literal realism of his characters’ speaking voices than the philosophical intelligence, the cosmological Weltanschauung, that defines their inner experiences. Language to him was a kind of code. This was the direction of his modernist impulse. What Lamming was after in his novels is not so much a representation of the life of a community as the evocation of the form of life of its humanity. And, for him, the verbal performance of language was one mode of that form of life by which the ethos and essence of any instance of humanity is embodied. In what follows, I want to reflect briefly on some aspects of the political poetics of freedom at work in Of Age and Innocence and Season of Adventure. From our vantage point, the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is important to remember that, writing in the 1950s, Lamming could have had no clear idea of how the story of decolonization and sovereignty would play out.
If Lamming’s 1954 novel, The Emigrants, is concerned primarily with the drama of departure from the colonial West Indies and arrival in England, Of Age and Innocence is concerned with the drama of return to the West Indies in a conjuncture of anticolonial nationalism. While both novels are mapping journeys toward an imagined expectation, in a sense The Emigrants offers a picture of the possible world of what would later be called the Windrush generation and the making of a Black Britain (a story it could not foresee), whereas Of Age and Innocence takes us into the equally unmapped territory of the making of the anticolonial project in the fictive San Cristobal. Notably, the latter novel was conceived and written in the context of the vicissitudes and antinomies of decolonization, as it sought to find coherent ideological directions and coherent organizational forms. Above all, the novel is haunted by the traumatic specter of the political crisis that had been unfolding in (then) British Guiana since the sinister 1953 intervention in which the British colonial authorities sent troops to overthrow the radical and multiethnic regime of the Cheddi Jagan–led People’s Progressive Party, which had won the first adult suffrage elections. British Guiana raised in the starkest terms the fundamental question of the nature of Caribbean decolonization—namely, How would it be possible to imagine a truly sovereign multiethnic national polity out of the legacies of African slavery and Indian and Chinese indenture? The fictive figures of Shepherd, Singh, and Lee are mobilized as allegorical condensations of the conflicted history out of which the Caribbean is made.
At the center of the novel is the attempt to work out, to evoke, an organic idea of freedom. How, exactly, to articulate the essence of the demand for self-determination? How to incite the proposition that freedom is not merely an effect of instrumental apparatuses such as declarations or constitutions but also something that belongs to the embodied experience of ordinary people? Freedom is not an abstruse or recondite idea. It springs from a quotidian understanding. This is the point made by the character Mark Kennedy, an intellectual long resident in England who decides for a while to throw in his lot with the anticolonial movement. In a memorable moment, in a political speech in support of the anticolonial leader, Shepherd, Mark declares, “Freedom is not a habit which may be overcome, nor is it a fashion which changes with opinion. It is an instinct; it is a nerve.”2 Mark is a crucial figure because it is through his unresolved predicament that Lamming is trying to work out the role of the intellectual in anticolonial politics. That Mark fails is Lamming’s way of alerting us to the conundrums of a chronic temptation.
In the end, we witness in Of Age and Innocence the drama of anticolonialism, punctuated as it is by the ambiguous coconstitution of personal and political contingencies, overwhelmed by catastrophe—by murder (of the anticolonial leader Shepherd and the arch colonialist Crabbe); by tragedy (in the contingent actions that lead to the fire at the mental asylum that kills, among others, the boy Rowley and Mark’s estranged partner, Marcia); and by suspicion (of Ma Shepherd by the Boys). Again, what is notable is that Lamming does not have the benefit of hindsight—he does not have the vantage from which to retrospectively build the omniscient script of the concluded narrative of anticolonialism.
Season of Adventure followed in 1960, two years after Of Age and Innocence. This was a momentous year, not only for West Indian fiction but more importantly for the anticolonial project, especially on the African continent—seventeen African countries gained independence in 1960. And partly in response to this avalanche of sovereignty in Africa, in December that year the United Nations General Assembly issued Resolution 1514 (XV), the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” that made sovereignty a moral imperative in international relations.3 Lamming dedicated the book to his friend, the Jamaican writer, Neville Dawes, whose own political novel, The Last Enchantment, also appeared in 1960. Lamming had spent some time with Dawes in Kumasi in 1958, the year of Ghana’s independence.
Season of Adventure is a Fanonian novel; its thematic concerns and diagnostic focus bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre, which was published the year after Lamming’s novel. Memorably, Season of Adventure opens precisely on the theme of freedom, or rather, as in the earlier novel, on the moral-psychological question of freedom, probing the assumption built into the neocolonial perspective that freedom could only be something like a gift, the grant of a favor for which the colonized should be grateful, or a value that comes from the outside rather than one that is internally generated. Once again we are in the composite San Cristobal, but now two years into its adventure of sovereignty. On their way to the Ceremony of Souls, Powell enlightens Crim who seems seduced by the colonial idea of freedom: “Free is how you is from the start,” Powell asserts. “You can’t move to freedom, Crim, ’cause freedom is what you is an’ where you start, an’ where you always got to stand.”4 Indeed, Powell is one of the novel’s central allegorical characters, meant to typify the corrosive psychic forces of an embodied masculinist and class and racial resentment, a murderous inclination to destroy the symbols of historical domination and dispossession. Famously, he is the subject of the unusual fictive device, an author’s note inserted late in the novel through which Lamming cautions against both scholarly and literary attempts to rationalize Powell’s commission of murder (Vice President Raymond) and attempted murder (the Brown middle-class woman Fola). Neither is completely satisfactory. The truth is nearer, more intimate. Powell is not an abstraction; he is our next of kin. The betrayal of his instinct for freedom and the responsibility for his path is no one else’s but our own.
By the end of the novel, the first, clearly neocolonial republic has been brought down by a popular upheaval and is constitutionally replaced by a second, more progressive one—led by the earnestly allegorical figure of Dr. Kofi James-Williams Baako, an intellectual-turned-politician who promises a regime that while devoted to democracy will not sacrifice the material needs of the country on the altar of a political procedure.5 Still, the republic is stalled in a precarious interregnum. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future. Standing within the conjuncture of independence, not in its wake, Lamming can sense the possibilities for real reform, but he also fears the dangers. Significantly, he cannot see—as we can—what will come of the Second Republic: the compromises and betrayals and failures to which it, too, eventually succumbs. Notably, drawing away from the political elites, Lamming closes the novel by embracing the subaltern vision of the tenor pan man Gort, known in the Forest Reserve for his personal integrity and musical genius (and also his mysterious refusal to eat sugar, the historical fruit of Caribbean blood), who imparts this wisdom to the children he teaches: “As a child treads soft in new school shoes, and a man is nervous who knows his first night watch may be among thieves; so the rhythms are not sure but their hands must be attentive: and so recent is the season of adventure, so fresh from the miracle of their triumph, the drums are guarding the day: the drums must guard the day.”6
When I visited George Lamming in Barbados, in early January 2001, to conduct my interview with him, I naturally stayed at Atlantis Hotel in Bathsheba, where he lived. This historic establishment was at the time still owned and presided over by the famous Mrs. Enid Maxwell (though it was soon to change hands), whose Sunday buffets were legendary. But Lamming seemed almost the hotel’s caretaker—he moved about it with an air of proprietary authority. He showed me to a room overlooking the sea, and after dinner I flung the balcony doors open. The moon was full, or nearly. And as the waves crashed with rhythmic relentlessness against the rock-swept shore below I couldn’t help but think of the drama that propels Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, in which this fabled hotel and this haunted, troubled sea are generative personalities.7 I barely slept. Over the next few days, Lamming and I spoke in detail about his life and work. There is much I now wish I had better understood and had probed more carefully. But what I still honor from that occasion is what I came away with: the rich sense of an artist and intellectual for whom the act of self-determination was a sacred property of human being, the basis for what Martin Carter called, in a phrase Lamming admired, a “free community of valid persons.”8
See David Scott, “The Sovereignty of the Imagination: An Interview with George Lamming,” Small Axe, no. 12 (September 2002): 158.
George Lamming, Of Age and Innocence (London: Michael Joseph, 1958), 173.
See David Scott, “Norms of Self-Determination: Thinking Sovereignty Through,” Middle East Law and Governance 4, nos. 2–3 (2012): 195–224. For Resolution 1514 (XV), see www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/declaration-granting-independence-colonial-countries-and-peoples.
George Lamming, Season of Adventure (London: Michael Joseph, 1960), 18.
Kofi James-Williams Baako is transparently a composite of C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, and Kofi Baako; Baako served in Kwame Nkrumah’s administration in postcolonial Ghana.
Lamming, Season of Adventure, 367.
Paule Marshall, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969).
Martin Carter, “A Free Community of Valid Persons” (lecture, University of Guyana, 19 October 1974), in “A Martin Carter Prose Sample,” ed. Ian McDonald and Nigel Westmas, special issue, Kyk-Over-Al, no. 44 (May 1993): 30–32; see Scott, “Sovereignty of the Imagination,” 124–25.