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Eric Walrond

Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Eric Walrond
    Book Description:

    Eric Walrond (1898-1966) was a writer, journalist, caustic critic, and fixture of 1920s Harlem. His short story collection,Tropic Death, was one of the first efforts by a black author to depict Caribbean lives and voices in American fiction. Restoring Walrond to his proper place as a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, this biography situatesTropic Deathwithin the author's broader corpus and positions the work as a catalyst and driving force behind the New Negro literary movement in America.

    James Davis follows Walrond from the West Indies to Panama, New York, France, and finally England. He recounts his relationships with New Negro authors such as Countée Cullen, Charles S. Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, and Gwendolyn Bennett, as well as the white novelist Carl Van Vechten. He also recovers Walrond's involvement with Marcus Garvey's journalNegro Worldand the National Urban League journalOpportunityand examines the writer's work for mainstream venues, includingVanity Fair.

    In 1929, Walrond severed ties with Harlem, but he did not disappear. He contributed to the burgeoning anticolonial movement and print culture centered in England and fueled by C. L. R. James, George Padmore, and other Caribbean expatriates. His history of Panama, shelved by his publisher during the Great Depression, was the first to be written by a West Indian author. Unearthing documents in England, Panama, and the United States, and incorporating interviews, criticism of Walrond's fiction and journalism, and a sophisticated account of transnational black cultural formations, Davis builds an eloquent and absorbing narrative of an overlooked figure and his creation of modern American and world literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53861-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XII)
    (pp. XIII-XIV)
    (pp. XV-XX)
    (pp. 1-10)

    Jean Campbell deposited a check for $850 at Barclay’s Bank on Barbour Street in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1969. It was an advance on the sale of the reprint rights for a book her father published to great acclaim in 1926, the first tangible benefit she and her sisters received from his writing. Liveright Publishers, a New York firm, had sold Eric Walrond’s lugubriously titled short story collection,Tropic Death. A check for $150 had been mailed to the author in London in early 1966 and, when he died that August, the balance of his $1,000 advance was made out to...

  7. 1 GUYANA AND BARBADOS (1898–1911)
    (pp. 11-24)

    Like many writers whose lives are defined by itinerancy, Eric Walrond was concerned with place, or more accurately with the relation between places. “The facts about me are puny enough,” he said self-effacingly, “I was born in British Guiana, December 18, 1898, and at the age of eight, my parents went to live in Barbados.”¹ “I remember boarding a sailing vessel bound for the West Indies. [. . .] We were the only passengers on the vessel, I think, and it was a voyage that was not without its exciting moments. I slept on a bed that was always damp...

  8. 2 PANAMA (1911–1918)
    (pp. 25-40)

    Panama has a singular place in the El Dorado myth, the fantasy of lucrative discovery that fired the imaginations of conquistadors and expansionists. It has been one of the hemisphere’s most volatile sites of political positioning and a crucible of transnational communities. By the time Richard Harding Davis wrote the aforementioned opinions, North Americans had been operating the interoceanic Panama Railroad for forty years and the French had spent most of the 1880s digging their way through the jungle, exhausting their laborers and funds in the process. For U.S. observers such as Davis, it was as if nature had presented...

  9. 3 NEW YORK (1918–1923)
    (pp. 41-82)

    Arriving in New York in June 1918, Walrond was six months shy of age twenty. He showed the Ellis Island officials $160, told them he was a journalist, and moved into the Brooklyn home of his aunt, Julia King Nichols.¹ A middle-class black community had formed in Brooklyn in the late 1800s, and Bedford Stuyvesant, the Nichols’s neighborhood, had become an enclave for West Indians, nine thousand of whom resided in Brooklyn in 1920.² Local markets carried saltfish, callaloo, and other Caribbean staples. Italians, Poles, and Jews had supplanted the Dutch and English who gave the neighborhood its name, but...

  10. 4 THE NEW NEGRO (1923-1926)
    (pp. 83-154)

    “You are perfectly correct about Eric Walrond,” Robert Davis told Edna Worthley Underwood, “He is quite the most promising young man I have seen in a long time.” An esteemed translator and author, Underwood had forwarded four stories to the editor ofMunsey’s . Davis acknowledged Walrond’s talent but rejected the stories.

    He has [a] genius for color; I never saw better atmosphere in anything. Of course he is violently irreverent. I can use nothing of the manuscripts enclosed. He has let down the barriers without reserve. It grieves me to let these manuscripts go back to you. In spite...

    (pp. 155-188)

    Tropic Deathis a strange and brutal book, “a work of blistering imaginative power.”¹ Written for a North American audience, it nevertheless refused to make the Caribbean easily accessible. Relying heavily on reported speech, it is an extended exercise in code switching, moving deftly between vernaculars and linguistic registers. A number of Caribbean dialects vie on the page with the narrator’s Standard English, and Caribbean place names and practices are rarely explained. In this sense, it is a terrifically impertinent performance. Four stories are set in Barbados, one in British Guiana, one on a ship between Honduras and Jamaica, and...

  12. 6 A PERSON OF DISTINCTION (1926–1929)
    (pp. 189-222)

    AfterTropic Death, things went so well that one wonders why Walrond left the United States. Why desert the country whose acceptance he sought? Why abandon Harlem as it emerged into prominence? Surveying 1926, Charles Johnson observed that “more books on the Negro have appeared than any other year has yielded, Broadway has welcomed three Negro plays, and with Eric Walrond, another Negro writer has moved definitely into the ranks of American artists with his fiercely realistic Caribbean tales.” His name appeared alongside Toomer, Hughes, and Cullen as writers of lasting import. “Eric Walrond automatically finds himself in this class,”...

  13. 7 THE CARIBBEAN AND FRANCE (1928–1931)
    (pp. 223-262)

    When news reached Zora Neale Hurston that Eric Walrond and Countée Cullen were leaving on Guggenheim Fellowships, she dashed off an indignant note to Langston Hughes. “What, I ask with my feet turned out, are Countée and Eric going abroad to study? A Negro goes to white land to learn his trade! Ha!”¹ Hurston could sniff, but unlike most Guggenheim Fellows, Walrond’s journey took him throughout the Caribbean. His award was trumpeted in the African American press and beyond.²The Timesof London noted that he was one of “three negroes” among the 75 fellowship recipients.³ Shortly before Walrond left...

  14. 8 LONDON I (1931–1939)
    (pp. 263-290)

    What happened to Eric Walrond? The question had “been asked numerous times over the past several months by persons who remember the promising author,” reported theBaltimore Afro-Americanin 1935, “No one seems able to answer except that Mr. Walrond left about two years ago for Mediterranean points, and has been gone ever since.”¹ The “unknown quantity,” as Wallace Thurman called him, had become still more reclusive. He had granted just one interview during his brief visit to New York, terse and guarded. “Rumors reached [Charles] Johnson from Europe that Walrond had squandered the [fellowship] stipends and written nothing.”² Even...

  15. 9 BRADFORD-ON-AVON (1939–1952)
    (pp. 291-312)

    To ride the train from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon, as Eric Walrond did after evacuating London, is to thread eight miles of a pastoral idyll. Sloping gently to the River Avon, the meadows south of the Cotswold Mountains are embroidered with low stone fences, and for long stretches sheep and cows seem to be Wiltshire County’s only residents. If Bath is Jane Austen, Wiltshire is Thomas Hardy, all copses and closes. In Bradford-on-Avon, limestone buildings line the narrow lanes that meander up from the valley. It had a grittier, prosaic feel when Walrond arrived in 1939, but in many respects it...

    (pp. 313-336)

    Eric Walrond admitted himself to the Roundway Psychiatric Hospital after an unseasonably snowy spring. “South England Blizzard Chaos” read the local headline, and Walrond’s sun-drenched stories of Barbados, Guyana, and Panama accompanied him, unpublished, to his new home.¹ The hospital, a massive complex on forty acres of land, housed thirteen hundred patients, many of whom were voluntary, like him. Formerly the Wiltshire County Asylum, it had been in operation since the Lunatics Act of 1845. For Walrond to acknowledge that he could no longer manage his illness required a good deal of courage and perhaps desperation. Patient records from this...

  17. 11 LONDON II (1957–1966)
    (pp. 337-354)

    Relieved to be self-sufficient again, Walrond thanked Nancy Cunard breathlessly for having introduced him to Erica Marx. “If you had not given her my name and address and if she had not got into touch with me, I would not be writing this letter now to thank you for having made it possible for me to make a clean break with the life I had known for so very long,” signing himself “Yours in eternal gratitude.”¹ Some of the gregariousness returned. Over lunch in Leicester Square, he discussed the proposed program with Marx and her Company of Nine partners.² Walrond’s...

    (pp. 355-358)

    The archive on Eric Walrond is riddled with gaps and silences. Much of what enables us to reconstruct his career is absent and perhaps beyond recovery. And yet a narrative emerges from the fragments, tracing a jagged path through the Caribbean diaspora, illustrating the boldness of Walrond’s work and its polyphony. He was not as prolific as some of his peers, but he was far more prolific after all than many realized. Despite his limitations, there is something poignant about the path he followed and something significant about the stories he told, the disquieting impression his work leaves on readers....

  19. NOTES
    (pp. 359-388)
    (pp. 389-402)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 403-418)