The best book I read in 2018 was written in 1963—not exactly au courant. Still, few works better withstand the test of time than Beyond a Boundary, the rich, rewarding sports memoir by Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James.
Journalist, teacher, and novelist, pan-Africanist historian and left-leaning political activist, Cyril Lionel Robert James is best remembered for The Black Jacobins, his 1938 account of the Haitian revolution. But he produced many other works, some of them groundbreaking. His 1932 pamphlet “The Case for West Indian Self-Government” was the first significant manifesto for independence in the British West Indies, and his 1936 Minty Alley the first novel published in Britain by a black Caribbean writer. Son of a schoolteacher, James was born in 1901, early enough to have relatives who recalled having been enslaved. From this modest family background, he rose to become an exemplary product of British colonial education. His varied and far-flung career included long sojourns in London, a 1939 meeting with Trotsky in Mexico, and fifteen years in the United States, capped by his 1953 deportation—and a study of Melville written while the author was detained on Ellis Island.
Yet it all began, as this memoir tells us, on a cricket field in Tunapuna, a town just outside Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain. James’s family home was adjacent to the field, and as a small boy he would stand on a chair by the living-room window and watch, awed by the action on the pitch. Cricket is the explicit subject of Beyond a Boundary. But this is a book that examines one thing in order to draw conclusions about everything. James wasn’t just watching cricket; he was studying it. His childhood passion for the sport and its heroes opens up broader musings, reflecting the process by which his recollection of those players and their exploits “ceased to be merely isolated memories and fell into place as starting points of a connected pattern.” The connections he made were not merely athletic. “Watching from the window,” he recalls, “shaped my strongest early impressions of personality in society.” What we see in these pages is a social critic in the making.
The other source of those impressions was books. In boyhood James was a prodigious reader, and Beyond a Boundary teems with references to Greek mythology, Biblical stories, and the British novelists whose works he revered, especially Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Reveling in the novelist’s “sneer and gibes at the aristocracy,” James reread the book obsessively—so often, in fact, that he often quoted passages to schoolmates verbatim. Thackeray led him to other nineteenth-century novelists—Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert—who probed the interplay of the individual and society. Such reading turned James into “a British intellectual before I was ten, already an alien in my own environment.” In his early teens, he won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College, the elite government school in Port of Spain (where, three decades later, he would be followed by V. S. Naipaul). At fifteen, he produced two pieces for the school magazine: a historical account of an earlier Oxford-Cambridge cricket match a half-century earlier, and an essay entitled “The Novel as an Instrument of Reform.” Thus did his first two publications establish the twin poles of his lifelong intellectual orientation.
James’s love for cricket includes its showcasing of what he calls “elemental” human traits and postures—“attack, defense, courage, gallantry, steadfastness, grandeur, ruse.” He is attentive to individual players and the subtle variations in their styles. Then there is the ethical dimension of the sport. Beyond a Boundary gives living meaning to the phrase, “it isn’t cricket,” in the person of James himself, who grew up imbued with what he terms “the cricket ethic” or “the code.” “I never cheated,” he writes; “I never argued with the umpire, I never jeered at a defeated opponent…. My defeats and disappointments I took as stoically as I could.... From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”
These reflections, offered by a man in his sixties, reveal how deeply formative British colonialism was on the character of its subjects. By the time James arrived in the United States in 1938, he had a decade of Marxist social criticism behind him, and his attitude toward the gentleman’s code had become—at least in theory—contemptuous. Yet as he sat in the stands watching baseball games, he couldn’t help feeling vexed by American norms of spectatorship. Disturbed by “the howls of anger and rage and denunciation which they hurled at players as a matter of course,” at managers and players who argued with umpires and got tossed out of games, and at “young people [who] had no loyalties to school because they had no loyalties to anything,” he glimpses a distressing image of societal deterioration. Americans were loath to take in James’s criticisms. He recalls that “they looked at me a little strangely. I, a colonial born and bred, a Marxist, declared enemy of British imperialism and all its ways and works, was the last person they expected that sort of thing from.”