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Emma Dabiri’s hidden histories: Edgar Mittelholzer

“He dreamed a career that seemed impossible and made it a reality,” writes Emma Dabiri

Published: December 14, 2021 at 7:43 am
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Edgar Mittelholzer was a Guyanese novelist who should be remembered not just for the quality of his writing, but as the earliest recorded writer from the Caribbean to make his living from the profession. I studied Caribbean literature at university, yet I don’t recall his name coming up in my studies. In fact, I came across him quite by chance thanks to a reference to his eerie ghost story, My Bones and My Flute, in Adam Curtis’s recent documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head. As an avid reader of ghost stories, I was intrigued by this Caribbean writer as most of the canon has been written by European and Anglo-American authors.

Race had a hugely formative influence on Mittelholzer’s life. Born in 1909 in what was then British Guiana, his father was of Swiss-German origin while his mother was from a light-skinned “multi-racial” family in Martinique. In a race-obsessed colonial context, the Mittelholzers had firmly established themselves as a “white” family, but their son – while still “light-skinned” – was the darkest, with features revealing him to be unmistakably of African descent. His presence was a source of deep shame for the family – a “momentous disappointment” for his father, in particular. “I was the Dark One at whom he was always frowning and barking,” wrote Mittelholzer.

The pressures of repressive colonial society affected Mittelholzer profoundly. To the further disappointment of his father, the young boy retreated into reading and writing, becoming fixated on finding a London publisher for his work. Caribbean writing was dismissed at the time as a contradiction in the colonial metropolis, and Mittelholzer was subject to rejection after rejection, which likely compounded the rejection he experienced within his own family. He persisted. In 1938, he wrote Corentyne Thunder and at the end of that year received the positive response he had sought for so long.

Seemingly plagued by bad luck, however, the outbreak of WW2 shut down any chance of immediate publication or even regular communication with his publisher. Corentyne Thunder was eventually published in 1941, but no sooner had the finished copies arrived in the warehouse than it was bombed, with only the handful of copies already sent to reviewers surviving.

During this period, Mittelholzer relocated to Trinidad and worked for the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, before being discharged (for what would now likely be diagnosed as clinical depression). With prospects looking unpromising, he decided to emigrate to the UK, embarking on the voyage in 1948 accompanied by his first wife Roma Halfhide and their young daughter. For a while, it looked like things were on the up. Working as a typist at the British Council, he met Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s widower, whose imprint, Hogarth Press, published A Morning in the Office, Mittelholzer’s sharply observed social commentary dealing with class and colourism in a Trinidad office. When two more of his novels followed in 1951 and 1952, he was finally able to fulfil a lifelong dream of quitting his job to become a full-time writer.

In the next nine years, Mittelholzer published 13 books with Secker & Warburg. But finances remained precarious and he moved around a lot, traversing the Atlantic from Canada to Barbados with an un-rootedness that perhaps found its origins in his own. His marriage broke down and he remarried in 1960, this time to an English woman named Jacqueline Pointer. Increasingly poor mental health, paranoia, anxiety and depression, combined with racism he undoubtedly faced in the publishing industry and broader British society, took its toll.

His work became increasingly mystical and right wing and his publisher soon cut ties with him, after which he struggled to find another. In his final novel, The Jilkington Drama, published posthumously, the main protagonist immolates himself to escape insanity. Mittelholzer himself met with a similar fate. On 5 May 1965, in a field in Surrey, the Caribbean’s first successful literary export drenched himself in petrol and lit a match.

Mittelholzer’s troubled life and sad demise should not overshadow his contribution to literature. He was a keen observer of the complexities of the Caribbean colonial society, with a rare gift for rendering the region’s landscapes in prose infused with vitality, drama and magic. In a world with no blueprint for what he wanted to achieve, he dreamed of a career that seemed impossible, and made it reality.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Emma Dabiri is an author and broadcaster, and teaching fellow at SOAS University of London

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