Modernism and Anglophone Caribbean Literature

Authored by: J. Dillon Brown

The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature

Print publication date:  June  2011
Online publication date:  June  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415485777
eBook ISBN: 9780203830352
Adobe ISBN: 9781136821745


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In the eyes of many critics, anglophone Caribbean literature and modernism would not be considered natural bedfellows, or perhaps even potential interlocutors. The reputation of modernist literature as an apolitical, elite, metropolitan, and European form of writing often works to discount the possibility that it could have any meaningful relationship to anglophone Caribbean literature, which typically constructs itself as politically engaged, peasant-oriented, and rooted in vernacular Caribbean cultural forms. The fact that modernism thrived in the first half of the twentieth century, just as the global influence exercised by the British Empire reached its peak, likewise suggests a fundamental incompatibility with a literature that arose in close conjunction with anti-colonial movements. Even Gordon Rohlehr’s ecumenically-minded essay ‘The Problem of the Problem of Form’, which argues for critical acceptance of a diverse array of Caribbean literary forms ranging from West Indian oral traditions to ‘certain aspects of the aesthetics of modernism’ (1992: 3), implicitly suggests a disjuncture between the categories ‘modernist’ and ‘Caribbean’. For despite his plea for an evenhanded consideration of writers operating from both ends of this continuum, Rohlehr explicitly focuses on one end – the oral tradition – and betrays clear discomfort with what he presents as the solipsistic, nihilistic tendencies of the texts occupying the modernist end (especially the later works of V.S. Naipaul). Rohlehr’s uneasiness with what he perceives as the imperious aspects of modernist style subtly resonates with Fredric Jameson’s contention that the formal characteristics of modernism itself are based on an aesthetic displacement of the consequences of imperialism (Jameson 2007). These two thinkers, from quite different positions, represent the broad range of a persistent critical suspicion that any productive affinity between modernist practice and Caribbean literature is fatally compromised from the outset.

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