Guyanese Author Edgar Mittelholzer: The Dark One – By James Ferguson | Caribbean Beat

Edgar Mittelholzer

Edgar Mittelholzer produced over a dozen books, despite the shadows that closed around him. James Ferguson celebrates his struggle

By James Ferguson | Issue 100 (November/December 2009)
Caribbean Beat – Caribbean Airlines

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the Caribbean’s first professional novelist. There had previously been writers from the region, such as the Jamaican journalist HG de Lisser, who made money from their fiction, but Edgar Mittelholzer, born on December  16, 1909, was the earliest recorded author from the region to make a living – and a very precarious one it would turn out to be – from his pen.     

Mittelholzer was born in British Guiana – now, of course, independent Guyana – into a family of predominantly European descent. His father was of Swiss-German origin and his mother from a light-skinned family from Martinique. In race-conscious British Guiana the Mittelholzers were firmly “white”, yet Edgar’s birth seemingly revealed some hitherto hidden family history, as he was – as he himself put it – “swarthy” – A Swarthy Boy is the painfully self-conscious title of his 1963 autobiography. For his father, Edgar’s colour was “a momentous disappointment”: “I was the Dark One at whom he was always frowning and barking.” Photos show a tall, rather gaunt man, with staring eyes and a sallow, rather than dark, complexion.

Race, racism and neurosis appear to have filled Mittelholzer’s early colonial years. Family life was genteel and repressed. He had few friends. He took refuge in reading and writing from an early age – again, to his father’s dismay – and kept voluminous diaries while bombarding London magazines and publishers with short stories. Nearly all his approaches met with rebuffs, as in the 1920s and 1930s the idea of Caribbean fiction was as yet unknown. Undeterred, Mittelholzer wrote Corentyne Thunder, in 1938. He had previously self-published a collection of stories called Creole Chips, which he hawked from door to door in New Amsterdam – a move that reinforced his reputation for eccentricity.

At the end of 1938 Mittelholzer finally received a positive response from a London publisher, but the outbreak of war stopped communications. It was not until 1941 that Corentyne Thunder was at last published, by Eyre & Spottiswoode; and immediately disaster struck. Hardly had copies arrived in the publisher’s warehouse, according to journalist Colin Rickards, than a German bomb destroyed warehouse and books alike. Only a handful of advance copies, sent out for review, survived.

By now Mittelholzer had left British Guiana for Trinidad, where he served with the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve until discharged on medical grounds – he was by now suffering from what we would now recognise as clinical depression. After taking a few menial jobs and marrying Roma Halfhide in March 1942, Mittelholzer decided to take the plunge and head for London, where he felt he could establish himself as a writer. He, Roma and their daughter sailed for England in 1948.

At first, he was uncharacteristically lucky, meeting Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s widower, through the British Council where he worked as a typist. In 1950 Woolf’s Hogarth Press published Mittelholzer’s A Morning in the Office in 1950, a sharp analysis of colonial colour and class snobbery set in a Trinidad office. When two more novels were published in 1951 and 1952, Mittelholzer gave up his job and became a full-time writer.

For a while the gamble paid off. From 1952 to 1961 he established a stable relationship with Secker & Warburg, who published 13 of his books. During that period, he restlessly travelled to Canada and Barbados before returning to London in 1956. By now, however, his relationship with Roma was on the rocks and in 1959 they divorced. Edgar then met Jacqueline Pointer at a writers’ summer school and married her in 1960.

Mittelholzer might have achieved his literary ambition, but life was never easy or straightforward. He refused to hire an agent. Money was always an issue, and books were written quickly for the next meagre advance. Funds had to be found for the children from his first marriage, while the arrival of a son in his second added financial pressures. The tendency towards anxiety and depression, evident from his early years onwards, began to become more pronounced. His precarious sense of identity and self-worth, undermined by his father, the colonial system and a lifetime of rejections from the publishing world, began to unravel.

Was it Mittelholzer’s escalating paranoia that repelled publishers and critics, or was their irrational hostility towards his work responsible for his descent into darkness? It was probably a mixture of the two. In any case, Secker & Warburg cut their ties with him and thereafter he found it almost impossible to find a publisher willing to take on a writer with a tricky reputation. His ideas, says Rickards in The Caribbean Camera, became increasingly right-wing and pseudo-mystical. In desperation he resorted to a nom de plume, but with little success.

Suicide had always fascinated Mittelholzer. One critic has estimated that no fewer than 15 of his characters kill themselves. In his last, posthumous novel, the main character escapes his insanity by setting fire to himself. This was to be Mittelholzer’s preferred end: On May 5, 1965 the author doused himself with petrol in a field near Farnham, Surrey, and lit a match. 

The awful nature of his death and the trials and tribulations he endured should not obscure Mittelholzer’s significant contribution to Caribbean literature. His My Bones and My Flute (1955) is a genuinely eerie ghost story set against a backdrop of slavery and revenge in Guyana. But perhaps his greatest work, recently reissued by the excellent Peepal Tree Press of Leeds, UK (www.peepaltreepress.com), is Corentyne Thunder, a ground-breaking novel of racial tension and passion set in rural Guyana. The characters it depicts are doubtless those people whom Mittelholzer’s father would have belittled as “coolies”, but the author gives the lives of Ramgolall, an old Indian cow-herd, and his daughters an epic significance that is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s best work.

Most significantly, the landscape itself – the great flat expanses of savannah, the presence of rivers and sea, the vast skies – is evoked in a way that no writer had ever done before.  Drawing on the emptiness he knew, Mittelholzer describes a nature utterly indifferent to the death of Ramgolall: 

“It looked so untroubled, so flat and at peace as though nothing at all had happened. And the sky, too, and the wind, the sunshine – all untroubled, the same as they had been yesterday and all the days before: The sky blue, the wind cool, the sun red because it was low in the west. “ 

“Ramgolall was dead, but the whole Corentyne remained just the same.” 

*********************

Added by Guyanese Online – Source Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Mittelholzer

Edgar Austin Mittelholzer (16 December 1909 – 5 May 1965) was a Guyanese novelist, the earliest novelist from the West Indian region to establish himself in Europe and gain a significant European readership.[1] Mittelholzer, who earned his living almost exclusively by writing fiction, is considered the first professional novelist to come out of the English-speaking Caribbean.

Selected bibliography

  • Creole Chips (1937, self-published)
  • Corentyne Thunder (1941; London: Secker & Warburg) Peepal Tree Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84523-111-8
  • A Morning at the Office (1950; London: Hogarth Press) Peepal Tree Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84523-066-1
  • Shadows Move Among Them (1951; Philadelphia: Lippincott) Peepal Tree Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84523-091-3
  • Children of Kaywana (1952; London: Secker & Warburg) ISBN 978-0-586-06491-7
  • The Weather in Middenshot (1952; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • The Life and Death of Sylvia (1953) Peepal Tree Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84523-120-0
  • Kaywana Stock: The Harrowing of Hubertus (1954; London: Secker & Warburg) ISBN 978-0-450-00079-9
  • The Adding Machine: A Fable for Capitalists and Commercialists (1954; Kingston: Pioneer Press)
  • My Bones and My Flute (1955; London: Secker & Warburg) ISBN 978-0-582-78552-6
  • Of Trees and the Sea (1956; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • A Tale of Three Places (1957; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • Kaywana Blood (1958; London: Secker & Warburg) ISBN 978-0-553-12376-0
  • The Weather Family (1958; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • With a Carib Eye (travel) (1958; London: Secker & Warburg1965)
  • A Tinkling in the Twilight (1959; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • Latticed Echoes (1960; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • Eltonsbrody (1960; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • The Mad MacMullochs (1961; London: Peter Owen)
  • Thunder Returning (1961; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • The Piling of Clouds (1961; London: Secker & Warburg)
  • The Wounded and the Worried (1962; London: Putnam)
  • Uncle Paul (1963; London: McDonald)
  • A Swarthy Boy: A Childhood in British Guiana – autobiography (1963; London: Putnam)
  • The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham (1965; London: Library 33)
  • The Jilkington Drama (1965; New York: Abelard-Schuman)

Criticism

  • Birbalsingh, F. M., “Edgar Mittelholzer; novelist or pornographer?”, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, no. 7 (July 1969), pp. 80–103.
  • Cartey, Wilfred, “The rhythm of society and landscape”, in New World Quarterly, Guyana Independence Issue (1966), pp. 97–104.
  • Collymore, Frank A., “A Biographical Sketch” in Bim, vol. 10, no. 41 (June/December 1965), pp. 23–6.
  • Gilkes, Michael, “The Spirit in the Bottle – a reading of Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office“, in World Literature Written in English vol. 14, no. 1 (April 1965), pp. 237–52.
  • Guckian, Patrick, “The Balance of Colour – A reassessment of the work of Edgar Mittelholzer”, in Jamaica Journal, vol. 4, no. 1 (March 1970), pp. 38–45.
  • Seymour, A. J., “An Introduction to the Novels of Edgar Mittelholzer”, in Kyk-Over-Al, vol. 8, no. 24 (December 1958), pp. 60–74.
  • Sparer, Joyce L., “Attitudes towards ‘Race’ in Guyanese Literature”, in Caribbean Studies, vol. 8, no. 2 (July 1968), pp. 23–63.
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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/10/2021 at 1:03 am

    Edgar Mittelholzer, being born in New Amsterdam, Berbice, British Guiana and – as he himself put it – “swarthy” – A Swarthy Boy is the painfully self-conscious title of his 1963 autobiography.

    I believe the origin of “swarthy” is Dutch – Guyana was a Dutch colony prior to becoming a British colony.

    ZWARTE PIET

    In Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas has a “helper” named Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete”, who usually appears as a blackface character with large gold earrings and exaggerated lips.

  • brandli62  On 02/10/2021 at 3:04 pm

    The Mittelholzer name originates from Switzerland. Edgar Mittelholzer’s Swiss roots go back to an ancestor, who was a Swiss mercenary in the Dutch army during the 18th century. After serving the Dutch, he retired to Berbice, then under Dutch rule, where he owned a plantation.

    The Mittelholzer name became famous in Switzerland in the early half of the 20th century due to the aviation pioneer Walter Mittelholzer. He made the first North-South flight across Africa in 1926/27 and was one of the founders of Ad Astra Aero, which later became Swissair.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Mittelholzer

    The author Klaus Stuckert writes about Edgar Mittelholzer:

    “Mittelholzer used to describe himself on the back of his books as being of
    Swiss-German ancestry. It has been said that “all through his books he hugged
    his Swiss German ancestry to his bosom as a little girl hugs her dolls.” This
    sense of Germanic heritage affected his life and work deeply. Mittelholzer revered
    his Germanic ancestry and found it difficult to come to terms with his
    African roots. Many critics attribute the extreme right-wing views of his later
    novels and his racism to his Germanic roots.”

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