Literary Impulses in Guyanese Literature before Independence
Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
May 21, 2006
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So the earlier writings on or about Guyana comprised mainly travelogues, journals and histories.
But the literary impulses of writers also surfaced during the early period of our history, guiding many to distil their findings and their thoughts in poetic and fictional outpourings.
An example of the ‘marriage between modes of literature and reportage’ is to be found in the circumstances surrounding the publication in 1877 of the first novel on Guyana, LUTCHMEE AND DILLOO. That novel came into being when its author, Edward Jenkins, discovered that his report, ‘The Coolie: His Rights and Wrongs’, in British Guiana did not have the desired effect, ‘flattering as was the reception of that book by the critics, the public little cared to read it’. So Jenkins transformed that lifeless study into a ‘picturesque form’.
THOSE THAT BE IN BONDAGE (1917) by A. R. F. Webber and A HANDFUL OF DUST (1934) by Evelyn Waugh were two of the other four of five early novels created from almost similar circumstances surrounding the first novel. Webber’s novel was first published in serial form while Waugh’s resulted from his travelogue, NINETY TWO DAYS.
James Rodway’s IN GUIANA WILDS, 1899, and W. H. Hutson’s GREEN MANSIONS, 1904, complete the listing of the five early novels in our literary heritage.
The first novel written by a Guyanese was CORENTYNE THUNDER (1941) by Edgar Mittelholzer. Others written by that same author and by his contemporaries including BLACK MIDAS (Jan Carew), OFF WHITE (Christopher Nicole), TO SIR WITH LOVE (E. R. Braithwaite), PALACE OF THE PEACOCK (Wilson Harris), GUIANA BOY (Peter Kempadoo) and DUMPLINGS IN MY SOUP (O. R. Dathorne) followed that first novel.
The first recorded verses of this country surfaced in 1832. That was the year someone writing under the pseudonym, ‘Colonist’, published his ‘MIDNIGHT MUSINGS IN DEMERARA’. Following the musings of the ‘Colonist’ was the ruminations of Simon Christian Oliver. Other significant names of that early period were Henry Dalton, William Roberts, Fred Belgrave, Thomas Don and Egbert Martin who was the most accomplished of the lot, sporting the label, ‘the father of Guyanese poetry’. After ‘Leo’, there was a lull, nay, a wide gap, in poetic expression until a revival in 20th century that led to what is termed modern Guyanese Poetry, ushered in by Walter McArthur Lawrence. This period was graced by the first anthology of poetry (GUIANESE POETRY edited by Cameron in 1931) and the second (AN ANTHOLOGY OF LOCAL INDIAN VERSE edited by Ramcharitar-Lalla in 1934). An enabling feature of Guyanese literature for this period was the launching of the journal, KYK-OVER-AL, in 1945. Some poets that kept the ‘unsteady flame’ burning unto Guyana’s Independence (and after) were/are A. J. Seymour, J. W. Chinapen, Wordsworth McAndrew, Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, Ivan Van Sertima, and Ian McDonald.
Of course, women were writing but still to produce a published collection. The active ones included Jacqueline DeWeever, Margaret Bayley, Edwina Melville, Cecile Nobrega, Rajkumari Singh and Leela Sukhu.
THE SHORT STORY
That the short story is the parent of the novel is not debatable as there was and continues to be a preponderance of practitioners in this genre. The record showed that as early as 1835, one Matthew Barker published his TOUGH YARNS. The first book of short stories published by a resident Guyanese was titled, ‘SCRIPTOLOGY’, written by Egbert Martin. This book was published in 1885 in Georgetown, Guyana, and is very rare with just one reported copy surviving.
The next collections of short stories by a single author were ‘TROPIC DEATH’ by Eric Walrond published in 1926 in the USA, followed by ‘DREAMS, DEVILS, VAMPIRES’ by J. A. V. Bourne in 1940. The horror tales by Bourne were originally published in the Chronicle Christmas Annual.
Attention must be focused on literary magazines of the time that became ready openings for burgeoning short story tradition slighted by the British publishing houses. Magazines like the Daily Argosy’s ‘CHRISTMAS TIDE’ which started in 1893 and the Daily Chronicle’s ‘CHRISTMAS ANNUAL’ (1915) nurtured the short story tradition, launching the career of many writers. Some names surfacing in that early period were Edgar Mittelholzer, Vere T. Daly, K. H. Cregan, David Westmaas, H. V. Webber, and Basil Balgobin.
The journals, KYK-OVER-AL, and, KAIE, also accommodated the short fiction.
Theatre in Guyana started in the late 18th century. However, almost all material performed was written abroad even though a few pieces were rearranged to include local flavour. Of course, there were exceptions like the case of a play written by the Dutch based on the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763. And then there were some early local playwrights whom little is known.
But it was not until the1940s with the advent of N. E. Cameron to stagecraft, that plays were written by Guyanese even though the content of some betrayed that fact.
Also during the 1940s, the British Guiana Dramatic Society which was established in 1936 came to prominence but for most of its existence it was guilty of producing plays from out of India as was the case with the other groups mimicking English, Dutch and German plays.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the rise of the Gray Dramatic Group in what is now known as Linden Town. The popular and extensive Sugar Estate Drama Festival which started in the late 1950s brought rural theatre into the equation.
However, the major impetus of this period was the founding of the Theatre Guild in 1957 which grew in stature, going on to produce some of the more outstanding players in drama including Sheik Sadeek, Frank Pilgrim, Ken Corsbie, Robert Narain, Michael Gilkes, Ron Robinson, Lorna Lampkin, Eileen McAndrew, Cecily Robinson, to name a few.
On this significant body of literature typified by the colonial experience and growing nationalistic impulses, we slipped almost seamlessly into a new era – Independence.