Edgar Mittelholzer

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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. His novels include characters and situations from a variety of places within the Caribbean, and range in time from the early period of European settlement to the twentieth century. They feature a cross-section of ethnic groups and social classes, dealing with subjects of historical, political, psychological, and moral interest. Mittelholzer is "certainly the most prolific novelist to be produced by the Caribbean".[1] Mittelholzer committed suicide in England in 1965.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Born in New Amsterdam, the country's second largest town, he was the son of William Austin Mittelholzer and his wife Rosamond Mabel, née Leblanc. Of mixed descent, he had forebears from Switzerland, France, Great Britain and Africa. He was educated at Berbice High School, and at an early age seems to have reacted against his middle-class colonial environment. He worked at various menial jobs while beginning to write and publish his work locally, his first publication being Creole Chips (1937).[2]

Corentyne Thunder signaled the birth of the novel in Guyana. It was written in 1938 when Mittelholzer was aged 29, living and working at odd jobs in New Amsterdam. The manuscript was sent to England and had a perilous existence until finally it found a publisher, Eyre & Spottiswoode, in 1941.

In December 1941, Mittelholzer left Guyana for Trinidad as a recruit in the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve (TRVNR) during the Second World War. He recalled his service in the TRVNR as "one of the blackest and most unpleasant interludes" in his life. Discharged on medical grounds in August 1942, he decided to make Trinidad his home, having married a Trinidadian, Roma Halfhide, in March 1942.

Move to England[edit]

In 1947 Mittelholzer decided to go to England, convinced that only by so doing would he stand a chance of succeeding as a writer. He had been maintaining himself and his family with a variety of odd jobs, such as receptionist at the Queen's Park Hotel and clerk at the Planning and Housing Board. He sailed for England with his wife and daughter in 1948, taking the manuscript of A Morning at the Office with him.

In London, Mittelholzer went to work in the Books Department of the British Council as a copy-typist. Through a fellow worker, he met Leonard Woolf in June 1949, and the result was the publication in 1950 by the Hogarth Press of A Morning at the Office, thought by some critics to have begun "the great decade of the West Indian novel".[1] Peter Nevill published his third novel, Shadows Move Among Them, in April 1951, and in 1952 brought out the first volume of Mittelholzer's monumental historical epic, Children of Kaywana. After its appearance, and despite hostile reviews, Mittelholzer took the crucial decision to give up his job at the British Council and live entirely by his writing. He was a contributor to the influential BBC radio programme Caribbean Voices.[3][4]

In May 1952, he was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing. He decided to spend the year in Montreal and to use his time there finishing the second volume of the Kaywana trilogy. The long Canadian winter of 1952-3 made him decide to move to Barbados with his wife and four children, and he spent the next three years in the West Indies. During that time he completed The Life and Death of Sylvia (1953), the second volume of the trilogy, The Harrowing of Hubertus (1954, retitled Kaywana Stock in 1955), and his terrifying ghost story, My Bones and My Flute (1955). He was also to use this Barbadian setting for four other novels.

In May 1956, Mittelholzer returned to England. His marriage was deteriorating steadily, and he was granted a divorce in May 1959, with his wife receiving custody of their two sons and two daughters. In August 1959, at a writers' workshop he met Jacqueline Pointer and they married in April 1960.

Mittelholzer published at least one novel a year between 1950 and 1965 (with the exception of 1964), the third book in his trilogy, Kaywana Blood appearing in 1958. He had stopped using an agent in preference to handling all his books himself. At first this seemed a wise move, and in 1952 he began an association with Secker & Warburg that was to last over nine years and thirteen books; however, in 1961 there was a falling-out over The Piling of the Clouds, which they refused to take on since they deemed it "pornographic". The novel was rejected by five publishing houses before G. P. Putnam's Sons published it in 1961, followed by The Wounded and the Worried (1962), and in 1963 Mittelholzer's autobiography, A Swarthy Boy. A promised second volume never materialized after he broke with Putnam's as well.

Mittelholzer's problems were steadily growing, and critical reception of his work was increasingly hostile. He had acquired the reputation of being "a problem author" and after 1961, he tells us, he lived "under an ever-darkening cloud-pall of opprobrium" (Jacqueline Mittelholzer, "The Idyll and the Warrior", p. 86). He felt persecuted, convinced that the poor reviews of his books were damaging his literary reputation and interfering with the publication of his work. The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham (1965), for example, was refused by fourteen publishers.

The difficulties he encountered in being published toward the end of his life affected Mittelholzer seriously. He was badly in need of money to support his first wife and children, as well as his second wife and son.

Mittelholzer took his own life near Farnham, Surrey, England, on 5 May 1965.

Legacy[edit]

The Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture Series was started by A. J. Seymour two years after Mittelholzer's death and then took place sporadically.[5] It is currently delivered annually under the auspices of the Department of Culture.[6] In the words of the Guyana Chronicle: "This memorial lecture series, like the Guyana Prize for Literature, is unique throughout the Caribbean where it is seen as a welcome acknowledgement of the arts, the artist and artistic achievement. Whenever possible, therefore, a distinguished Guyanese is identified and asked to deliver the Mittelholzer Memorial Lecture, which is viewed with distinction and the entire literary community, including scholars and academics, consider it a command appearance."[7]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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.

References[edit]

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