Books October 2007

Bowling Alone

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

These days, the social cachet of the club is zero. It’s not that we’re a particularly disreputable bunch, but that our sport overwhelmingly belongs to newly arrived immigrants from the Caribbean or South Asia. With very few exceptions (among them, years ago in Texas, J. M. Coetzee), Englishmen and Australians and South Africans don’t bother to unpack their bats and whites, on account (I’m guessing) of the small, scruffy, thickly grassed and weedy fields that we play on, most of which are situated in public parks in downscale neighborhoods and come as a shock to a newcomer used to better things. He sees a playing track made not of turf but of coconut matting stretched over clay, and he sees a rough, overgrown outfield that undermines his notion of what batting is all about: hitting the ball along the ground, over beautifully mowed grass. There’s a baseball diamond in a corner of the field, indifferent cars roar nearby, and the players seem a little lost. He sees, in short, a game lacking in the orderliness and visual splendor that offer an alternative to the graceless wider world: To play cricket properly is to submit not only to complex athletic disciplines—there are scores of ways to make runs, and scores of ways to bowl the ball, and scores of ways to position the fielders—but, for the duration of a hot day, to an altered sense of time.

Although arrived from England, I have played for many seasons in and around New York, and if the experience has been only roughly and intermittently blissful, it’s always been fun. The recent inflow of West Indians and, especially, Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans has made the game more popular now than at any other point in American history. There are well over a hundred clubs in the New York metropolitan area, for example, and substantial concentrations in Florida and California. Occasionally somebody dreams of capitalizing on this historic influx and schemes to set up proper facilities and proper institutions. Nothing significant has come of this yet, partly because the national administration of the sport is crippled by infighting and incompetence, and partly because cricket is still regarded as a joke by the powers that be.

Staten Island C. C.’s heyday ended when the 20th century began, on account—or so my reading of the newspaper reports from that time suggests—of a rivalrous golf club established by the cricket club’s members. The traditional and more general explanation is that cricket found itself in competition with, and lost out to, baseball—another game drenched in memory and in sensual impressions of youth, of summer, of recurrence. Various sociological theories have emerged as to why this happened, and underlying much of them is the notion, more implied than expressed, that to get to the bottom of the matter is to get to the bottom of America’s mystical, exceptional identity. As Jacques Barzun famously suggested, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

In any case, C. L. R. James did not see a single cricket match in the 15 years he lived in America. This isn’t surprising, because he was busy. Arriving in 1938 to lecture on the Negro struggle, he stayed on as a full-time agitator. His activities included meeting Trotsky in Mexico, helping out sharecroppers on strike in Missouri (his suggested tactics anticipated those of the civil-rights movement), and of course putting pen to paper: Installments of his Notes on Dialectics—an analysis of dialectical materialism that is still very readable—would be sent to Detroit autoworkers, who would read it and sit up all night discussing Hegel. James spent a lot of energy revising his revolutionary views and affiliations. He quit the Socialist Workers’ Party for the Workers’ Party, and set up a faction named, like a bad rock band, the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which itself then rejoined the SWP and finally gave rise to a group named, like a cool rock band, the Correspondence Publishing Committee.

This merry-go-round came to a sudden stop in 1952. James was arrested by the INS and taken to Ellis Island to await deportation hearings. Surrounded by “sailors, ‘isolatoes,’ renegades and castaways from all parts of the world,” he feverishly wrote a critical study of Herman Melville in which his fellow detainees are likened to the crew of the Pequod (whose journey is that of “modern civilization seeking its destiny”) and Ahab to a henchman of state capitalism. Rather curiously, and to the distaste of some of his admirers, James ended the book with a personal plea for American citizenship. He sent copies of the work to every member of Congress, hoping they’d buy into his conception of a United States that might accommodate an alien of his sort. They didn’t. James was deported.

He lived in England for five years, and then went back to Trinidad, where as a campaigning journalist and editor he was instrumental in securing the captaincy of the West Indian cricket team for a black man, Frank Worrell—not because of his skin color, but because of his personal merits. The controversy is movingly documented in the last chapters of Beyond a Boundary and ends happily, with the West Indians, through their cricket captain Worrell, finally making “a public entry into the comity of nations.”

James eventually returned to London, holing up in a flat in Brixton. As he grew into a wizened, frail old charmer, he began to acquire the iconic status he enjoys today. He died in 1989. His reputation (speaking of the Pequod) is an extraordinary ship in which Marxists, cricket buffs, black activists, Pan-Africanists, and lovers of belles lettres sail together, albeit fractiously.

In this country, the Jamesian focus is primarily on his U.S. years; the Melville book is particularly hot property, not least because of its spooky prescience about the workings of the Bush administration. More interestingly, it has been seized on by academics in the world of American studies. They see in its methodology and stateless viewpoint a pioneering effort to reject the insular, exceptionalist narratives by which America explains itself. They see, that is, a way of moving beyond multiculturalism—which implicitly reinforces the notion of the United States as a place of unique value—to so-called postnationalism.

Biographically, James is a good fit for postnationalists. He drifted from one country to another, a vagrancy paralleled by his refusal to submit to the disciplinary jurisdictions in which he also wandered: Not many thinkers hold Thackeray and Marx in equal estimation, or regard games and politics as comparable vessels of ethical and social values. But the trouble with the American postnationalists, as at least one scholar, Christopher Gair, has pointed out, is that they focus on James’s American output; and in doing so, they linger in the very American mythological space they are supposedly trying to lead us out of. What they should be doing instead is reading Beyond a Boundary.

For this book is where James offers the most complex, literary, and heartfelt synthesis of his preoccupations. Using cricket to blur boundaries between white and black, colonized and colonizer, an-cient and modern, political and social, he stages a brilliant attack on “that categorization and specialization, that division of the human personality, which is the greatest curse of our time.” His concern was profound and by no means abstract. Are there more-consequential divisions of human personality than the ones currently imposed by religion and nationality?

The trouble, of course, is that Americans, even if they are Americanists, can’t read Beyond a Boundary. They can follow the words, but with what prospect of understanding them? How could their reading not be riddled with misconceptions, guesses, gray areas? E. P. Thompson once remarked, “I’m afraid that American theorists will not understand this, but the clue to everything lies in [James’s] proper appreciation of the game of cricket.” Unfortunately, he was right.

Now, it’s true that cricket is not quite as remote as it once was. It is the national sport of India, a new world power; and earlier this year The New York Times ran a front-page story about the murder of the Pakistan cricket coach, Bob Woolmer (who, it turned out, was not murdered at all). It’s also true that to write about cricket in this country is no longer to surrender automatically to the hegemony of American culture; until quite recently, the word cricketer, when typed into my computer, would be underscored by a squiggly red line. But the mystery of cricket is still equivalent to the mystery of the Other.

It’s a shame. It puts C. L. R. James’s greatest book beyond a boundary. It also raises James’s big question in another form: What do they know of America who only America know?

Presented by

Joseph O'Neil

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

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