Many into One, One into Many: George Lamming (1927–2022)

Lamming never lets readers forget that within that one man—as within all of us—is a boiling multitude.

The great Barbadian novelist, essayist, and activist George Lamming (1927–2022) once tackled New World identity by way of Shakespeare’s Tempest. “I see the Tempest against the background of England’s experiment in colonisation,” he wrote in his scorching 1960 book of essays, The Pleasures of Exile. Shakespeare’s sense for Caliban and Ariel’s agony at trying to live both within and without Prospero’s magical speech seemed to Lamming a premonitory echo of life as a colonial subject.

I’ve taught Lamming’s vision of Shakespeare for twenty years: in Baltimore, at Brandeis University, and most recently at Concord prison in Massachusetts, paired with works by Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, and Homi Bhabha. It’s always Lamming the students want to discuss. Partly for the acuity with which he links Prospero’s shaky dominion on his island to the colonial experiments of Shakespeare’s own day, but also for his blunt reminder that his readers should listen because his account of The Tempest and books like it is “based upon facts of experience.” As Lamming puts it, his interpretation

is intended as an introduction to a dialogue between you and me. I am the whole world of my accumulated emotional experience, vast areas of which probably remain unexplored … it will not help to say that I am wrong in the parallels which I have set out to interpret; for I shall reply that my mistake, lived and deeply felt by millions of men like me—proves the positive value of error, it is a value which you must learn … This book is really no more than a report on one man’s way of seeing.

Between 1953 and 1972, Lamming published six novels, along with The Pleasures of Exile. Then, aged 44, he was done. A pause that long (half a century!) has consequences. When Lamming passed away in early June, I spent more than a week uneasily scanning the pages of major newspapers. Relief came in the form of a eulogy by Sandra Pouchet Paquet, who alongside Supriya Nair is probably Lamming’s most generous scholar and champion. Tributes to come (like this one) will follow Paquet in praising his pathbreaking 1953 debut, In the Castle of My Skin, a partly autobiographical coming-of-age novel published when Lamming was only 25. Alongside his reputation as a teacher and a firebrand political activist, he will be recalled for his important early friendship with Trinidadian novelist Sam Selvon (his 1956 Lonely Londoners makes an apt companion piece to Lamming’s 1954 The Emigrants) and with the historian and theorist C. L. R. James, whose Black Jacobins had an early supporter in Lamming.

How else will Lamming go down in the history books? Most praise over the decades has emphasized his push toward solidarity and political unity. Paquet’s obituary argues that Lamming’s work is defined by “the idea of a unified Caribbean.” This resonates with Simon Gikandi’s 1992 opinion that Lamming wrote In the Castle of My Skin (which he considers “perhaps the most powerful narrative critique of the psychology of colonialism”) because “narrative offered a form and a strategy for restoring the West Indian character to history.”

Richard Wright’s 1953 foreword to the American edition similarly praises Lamming for making one young person’s story into “a symbolic repetition of the story of millions of simple folk who, sprawled over half of the world’s surface and involving more than half of the human race, are today being catapulted out of their peaceful, indigenously earthy lives and into the turbulence and anxiety of the twentieth century.” Finally, in 2009 the celebrated Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o sees Lamming documenting “ordinary men and women … with lives governed by a mythic consciousness and local allegiance, to a people for themselves, governed by a vision that goes well beyond the boundaries of the village and the Caribbean shores to the outer arena of black and social struggles worldwide.”

Lamming never lets readers forget that within that one man—as within all of us—is a boiling multitude.

Still, solidarity and cohesion doesn’t entirely sum up the fiction. In a 1972 review of Natives of My Person, C. L. R. James stressed the loneliness underpinning Lamming’s writing. Unlike Cesaire (who “projected the simple humanities of African tribal life as a vision of what humanity would achieve”), Lamming believed “The West Indian has no genuinely native civilization or traditional culture of his own. His rejection of Western civilization is therefore untroubled by any instinctive or traditional burdens or barriers. He can become a part of the civilization, be totally involved, but always as one who is a traveler in a foreign land.”

I am with James. What really interested Lamming was not the individual merging into the multitude but the multitude emerging within the individual. Out of many, one; true. But within that one, many.

The first piece I wrote about Lamming made the case that in all his novels, Lamming documented the Caribbean failure of “that sacred gang” of British writers (“Dickens, Jane Austen, Kipling … imported in much the same way that flour and butter are imported from Canada”). I stressed Lamming’s satirical glee in the subversive potential of colonial mimicry, for example, an impassioned debate among schoolboys in In the Castle about whether the king actually pressed his face into every British penny.

Something else strikes me now: the insistent joy that keeps bubbling up behind every such act of failed mimicry, every moment of impersonation. Those boys pretending to see the king’s face in their shiny pennies are not simply abject colonial subjects, they are also developing what Lamming promised in The Pleasures of Exile—a report on their own way of seeing. Each of us strives to make sense of the world we inhabit, and as we do, we are filled up with thoughts of others—as Hannah Arendt puts it, the imagination goes visiting.

Lamming’s fiction is filled with events that seem clear and unambiguous to their central actors as they are happening. Suddenly, however, the camera angle shifts: the same events are viewed from another vantage point. In an early scene from In the Castle of My Skin, rich white landlords pay a “charitable” visit to the impoverished village whose labor sustains them. Everyone is polite or impassive—that is, until the family leaves:

When the carriage disappeared with the landlord and his family, small boys came out to rehearse the scene. Two took the part of the horses and trotted along to the fore, while another three arranged themselves behind as the landlord and his family had done … when they had watched the landlord and his friends on the roof of the brick house, they reproduced the scene behind the fence in the open air. They made saucers and cups with a mixture of dirt and water and saliva … they served tea from the tap of a standing pipe nearby.

The old ways are neither copied nor parodied—instead they are picked up, played with, and out of that play (out of dirt and water and saliva) something new emerges.

Ngugi and Wright both see Lamming aspiring to make many into one. But what I most admire about him is another process, almost the mirror image: the way that other people’s stories are witnessed, retold, assimilated—and metamorphosed. We all contain multitudes.

The epigraph to In the Castle of My Skin (“Something startles where I thought I was safe”) comes from Walt Whitman. Lamming takes heart from Whitman’s embrace of the sometimes paradoxical multiplicity that comes with giving one another room, with hearing and assimilating others’ viewpoints: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” There is even a subtle lesson in the names of Lamming’s first and last novels. As phrases, both In the Castle of My Skin and Natives of My Person allude to the complex interior state of the speaker. Both configure that interior as a populous place, shot through with other voices, other lives.

Natives of My Person, a torqued retelling of the post-Columbus era of European exploration and land grabs, concludes with a poignant scene between the wives of characters who have staked their lives on a mad venture westward. Two of them ponder their oddly mixed feelings of abandonment and vicarious connection. What they settle on is a sense that their real life is somehow being lived elsewhere, in another’s body.

SURGEON’S WIFE: It was what I had to do. He was a piece of my person.

STEWARD’S WIFE: It is the same. My husband had become that too: a native of my person. Whenever there is a crisis, we must choose against our interests.

In order to live, people require the feeling that their life is bound up with those beyond themselves—even though both Surgeon and Steward are dead by the moment in the novel at which their wives assert they are living through them.

Lamming raged against the smug imperial notion that the “sacred gang” from England could simply shove their ideas and their words down Caribbean throats. Let no one island think it can beam itself out to every other place on earth, turning culture into one-way traffic. However, Lamming did not think that simple rupture was the solution. He never forgot that each of us does in fact live by borrowing others’ ideas, breathing others’ air.

I wish I knew why the novels ceased after 1972; think of what another fifty years might have brought. Still, “one man’s way of seeing” may be the best phrase to sum up the two decades of fiction he did give us. Lamming never lets readers forget that within that one man—as within all of us—is a boiling multitude. By reporting what he sees, Lamming gives tongue to that contradictory crowd inside him. They make worthy opponents to colonialism’s “sacred gang.” icon

Featured image: Detail of Portrait of George Lamming by Carl Van Vechten (1955). Library of Congress