Books October 2007

Bowling Alone

The “greatest sports book ever written” is a mystery to Americans, for reasons all too revealing of national character.

It was at his window that James also received some of his “strongest early impressions of personality in society,” noticing in particular how his neighbor, a terrifying no-good character named Matthew Bondman, found respite from his “pitiable existence as an individual” because he could bat. The Jameses were above the likes of Bondman. True, their Cousin Nancy remembered her days as a slave before the 1834 abolition, but C.L.R. was the son of a teacher, and the teacher was the son of a man who rose from “the mass of poverty, dirt, ignorance and vice” to become a pan boiler on a sugar estate (usually a white man’s job) and a wearer of top hats and frock coats to church. The experience of growing up in an atmosphere of ever-threatened respectability led James to observe—a typically erudite sweep across time and space, this—

I believe I understand pretty much how the average sixteenth-century Puritan in England felt amidst the decay which followed the dissolution of the monasteries, particularly in the small towns.

The window, then, gave onto cricket, which in due course gave onto wider, more complex prospects in which the athletic and the beautiful and the political were fused. The fusion was reinforced at school: James was the youngest boy to win an exhibition to Queen’s Royal College, in Port of Spain, a colonial institution at which the future Marxist radical, Pan-Africanist, and “declared enemy of British imperialism and all its ways and works” acquired a lifelong veneration of Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School and principal creator of the Victorian public-school ethos. This Puritan ethos, in James’s admiring (if not downright starry-eyed) view, ensured, among other good things, that “cricket and football provided a meeting place for the moral outlook of the dissenting middle classes and the athletic instincts of the aristocracy.” He read and cherished Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and on the college cricket field, he learned never to question the umpire’s decision, never to cheat, never to complain or make excuses: “This code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”

This quaint indisposition to self-pity stood James in good stead in later years. It also, along with his ideological inclination to analyze society in economic terms, underpinned an instinctive distaste for racial partisanship. The racism he saw in Trinidad cricket, he coolly recalled, “was in its time and place a natural response to local social conditions, did very little harm and sharpened up the game.”

Stiff upper lip notwithstanding, the young James neglected his studies and, much to his retrospective relief, did not (unlike Naipaul) leave Trinidad on an Oxbridge scholarship. For about 10 years, he taught school and wrote journalism; autodidactically deepened his passion for literature and history; and immersed himself in the ragtag but highly charged world of Trinidad cricket, an amusement offering modes of self-realization that were simply unavailable elsewhere in the culture:

Social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games.

He was a handy batsman and bowler, which brought him into contact with the superior class of local players. One of these, Learie Constantine, who became a renowned club professional in Lancashire, inspired James to think politically and, as James put it, cracked his shell of 19th-century intellectualism. Most consequentially, Constantine (later Lord Constantine, eminent also as a British public servant) advised him to go to England. The year was 1932, and C. L. R. James was a 31-year-old nobody. In England, this was to change dramatically.

James’s career took off on an amazing, even berserk trajectory. Constantine, a much-loved figure in Lancashire, was in great demand for public speaking, and he asked the new arrival to share the load. In this way, James quickly developed a reputation for cleverness and exotic charm. Very soon he published (with Constantine’s money) his first book, The Life of Captain Cipriani, also known as The Case for West Indian Self- Government; landed a job as a cricket correspondent for The Guardian; published a novel, Minty Alley, that he’d written in the West Indies (it was, he claimed, the first novel by a black West Indian to appear in England); wrote a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture that was staged in the West End with none other than Paul Robeson playing the lead; published a study of the Haitian slave uprising, The Black Jacobins, which half a century later was described by Edward Said as a “brilliantly written and stirring masterpiece of historical writing—surely among the great books of 20th-century scholarship”; and, concurrently to all these literary endeavors, became fatefully embroiled in political theory and activism. He joined the Marxist Group—a Trotskyist organization—and wrote World Revolution, a history of the Communist International that attracted the admiration of Trotsky himself.

It bears mentioning that James loathed Stalin and his Soviet Union, suggesting in 1937, in the teeth of much comradely opinion, that the dictator’s “corrupt and limited personality” ideally equipped him to act as a “second or successor to a Hitler or a Mussolini.” Mussolini was a particular target of disdain for James, who on top of everything else was the chair of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, and duly became active in the International African Service Bureau.

Beyond a Boundary, however, barely refers to any of this. The chapters devoted to James’s English period (1932–38) are in effect a study of his mentor Constantine’s development as a league cricketer and as a human being. Rather than dwell on the next dramatic lurch in his life—his move to America—James veers into a detailed, statistic-heavy, and sparklingly personal assessment of George Headley, the great Jamaican batsman. (James’s portraits of cricketers have the urgency of submissions confronting a deep injustice.) Then, having mentioned as an aside that in 1941 he began to question the premises of Trotskyism, he articulates a theory about the conjunction of the popular demands for sports and for democracy, from ancient Greece to the overthrow of Napoleon III. And after that, he embarks on a very lengthy and nostalgic study of W. G. Grace, the legendary Victorian cricketer whose stature and effect can be understood only if one were to imagine a golfing colossus in whom the charismatic and sporting qualities of Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros, and Tiger Woods have been compounded. It’s fascinating stuff, yes, terrific social history as well as biography, but it’s hardly accessible or, on the face of it, of terrible relevance to the American reader.

There is an irony here, namely that cricket was, as it happens, the first modern American team sport—which is to say, a sport properly organized and monitored. Benjamin Franklin was very interested in cricket, and by 1779 at least two teams, Brooklyn and Greenwich, were turning out regularly. More teams sprang up, and in 1838, the first formally constituted club, the St. George Club of New York City, came into being. Matches for money were played: In 1844, a Toronto team won a $1,000 purse in front of several thousand spectators in New York. Most of the players were British expats, but in Philadelphia, significant numbers of homegrown Americans took up the sport as an elite pastime and produced great cricketers and great clubs. Earlier this year, I played in Philadelphia at the Merion and Germantown and Philadelphia cricket clubs, where for a few weeks a year the tennis nets are stowed away and the gigantic, magnificently maintained lawns are restored to their original use.

My own club, Staten Island C. C., dates back to 1872, and is the oldest continuously active cricket club in the country. For almost a century and a quarter it has made its home at Walker Park, a little ground on the island’s north shore. Walker Park and its cricketers once formed a hub of New York society, hosting fêtes champêtres and lawn tennis and attracting coverage in the sports and society pages.

Presented by

Joseph O'Neil

Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland will be published in 2008 by Pantheon.

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