The Purloined Islands: Caribbean-US Crosscurrents in Literature and Culture, 1880-1959

Article excerpt

Jeff Karem, The Purloined Islands: Caribbean-US Crosscurrents in Literature and Culture, 1880-1959. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 201 1 . ix + 303 pp.

REVIEWED BY BRIDGET BRERETON

THIS BOOK STUDIES HOW CARIBBEAN writers contributed to the literature of the USA and how the literary tradition of that country helped to shape writers in and from the region: a reciprocal dialogue between the USA and the islands which was crucial to literary and cultural developments in both. Karem 's premise is captured in his title, taken from a story by Edgar Allen Poe, "The Purloined Letter"; he argues that the contribution of Caribbean writers to the US literary canon has been consistently ignored, that their work has been often appropriated or "purloined" by their US counterparts, "hidden in plain sight" like the letter in Poe's story.

Karem wants to redress this pattern in US literary history of "appropriating the voice of others", in this case the work of writers from the islands who contributed richly to the literatuand culture of the giant of the North. Though recent scholarship has successfully broadened the US canon to acknowledge the centrality of African-American culture to it, it needs to go further in Karem's view. The "Border Studies" scholars haven't really brought in the islands; the African -American/Caribbean comparative literature approach tends to assimilate the creolised Caribbean cultures into the African- American critical paradigm, failing to capture the complexities of the mixed cultural and literary traditions of the islands. Even the recent New American Studies, claiming a globalised perspective, rarely considers the extensive body of Caribbean discourse on the USA - it's always vice versa - and in general this approach keeps the USA firmly at the centre of hemispheric studies, failing to see there was a reciprocal dialogue in progress.

For Karem, the cultural and literary crosscurrents were so strong that "we can only understand the literary history of the US if we understand that of the Caribbean, and vice versa". Many cultural and literary developments often seen as US "intellectual property", such as the Pan-African movement and the New Negro Renaissance, in fact have significant roots in the Caribbean. But these contributions have been appropriated by US culture, purloined and hidden in plain sight.

One of the great strengths of this book is its truly pan-Caribbean scope. Karem considers literature from the Hispanic, francophone and anglophone Caribbean, moving easily between the three languages and providing his own English translations for quotations from works written in Spanish and French. In this respect it resembles Paul Miller's Elusive Origins, which I reviewed for this journal in 2011 (vol. 57, no. 1), and like that book, it completely avoids the parochial approach so often found in English-speaking critics.

Karem first considers "resistance writing" or "counter-discourses" from the Caribbean before and after the US emergence as a full-fledged imperial power in the region in 1898. He looks at José Martí of Cuba, J.J. Thomas of Trinidad, Henry Sylvester Williams and the first Pan-African Conference in 1900, and the Haitians Anténor Firmin and Benito Sylvain - all of whom wrote about the USA and its future role in the region. Probably the two Trinidadians, Thomas and Williams, will be the least known to US readers. Karem notes that Thomas's Froudacity has received little critical attention, but oddly (and ironically) fails to mention or cite the full-length study of his thought by the Jamaican scholar Faith Smith (Cr role Recitations, published in the same series as Karem's book).

Williams, born in Trinidad, called the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. Karem correctly argues that despite two biographies of Williams published in the 1970s, subsequent writings on the Pan-African movement have neglected him and the 1900 meeting. …