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Sunday, January 29, 2006

The author as ethnographer: A Morning at the Office

Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office (Mittelholzer 1979), first published in 1950, can be read as a micro-sociological analysis of social relations at an office in Port-of-Spain. The office has 14 employees who between them span virtually the entire scope of variation with respect to social classification in late colonial Trinidadian society. The classificatory dimensions of ethnicity, class, gender and locality are all covered through Mittelholzer's very varied cast, which even includes an anomaly, namely a homosexual coloured man.3

The simple idea behind the novel consists in describing what happens in the office between four minutes to seven and lunchtime, in order that the reader may observe how a particular pattern of social classification is confirmed and reproduced through the difficult and subtle art of social interaction. Like any good ethnographer, Mittelholzer tries to fuse the universal with the particular and thus accounts for individual idiosyncracies, as well as structural and cultural defining characteristics of the different situations. His cast introduces the secretary Miss Yen Tip, who "was a creole Chinese who could not speak Chinese"; there is Mr Jagabir, the East Indian accountant who unsuccessfully tries to feel at ease in the urbane creole environment of the office and continuously fears that his superiors will send him back to the cane fields; there is the creolized Indian girl Miss Bisnauth who is in love with a coloured artist and rejects the constraints of caste; there is the young black boy Horace whose Uncle Tom attitudes will no doubt help him to a successful career in independent Trinidad a decade later, and so on. Although my fieldwork took place four decades after Mittelholzer's, I have met all these characters.

Read as ethnography in the 1990s, the novel indicates that ethnic relations have changed, and one of the author's most impressive achievements is his depiction of the ambiguous and complex relationship between the colonial white upper class and the indigenous coloured middle class. Since many of them were beneficiaries of the "jobs for the boys" principle, the whites in Trinidad were often of more humble origins than the local coloureds. As the light-brown secretary Miss Henery muses on page 93, after having been humiliated by her boss:

A dirty lot of people. And who was Murrain at all! For all she knew, she had much better class than he. Most of these English people who came out to the colonies were of the dregs. But the instant they arrived they turned gods. Who knew if Murrain had not been dragged up in some London slum? His white skin was all that made him somebody in Trinidad. Her parents and grandparents were ladies and gentlemen

Today, the relationship between whites and coloureds is less important in Trinidadian social classification than it was then, although it remains ambiguous in a similar way. In this novel, further, a great deal of attention is granted to the fine distinctions within the coloured segment; the distinction between kinky hair and light brown on the one hand and straight hair and olive skin on the other is considered important. In contemporary Trinidad, it would seem inappropriate to grant such a distinction great social importance.

Mittelholzer's concern with rank and social classification is evident throughout the book. Through descriptions of bodily movements from gracious and elegant to clumsy and inept, through depictions of the characters' speech, from gross rural Trinidadian creole to Queen's English, and in his descriptions of the relations between the sexes, he also gives the reader abundant information about cultural differences between the rank categories. On this score, Mittelholzer could be challenged if his book is read as an ethnographic description, according to which premisses he might be criticized for portraying the local cultural variation in an exaggerated and biased manner.

Since Mittelholzer's book is a novel, convention dictates that it is not used as hard ethnographic evidence. However, A Morning at the Office is doubtless based on first-class ethnographic field material; it covers many fine nuances of inter-ethnic micro relations, and it is surprisingly comprehensive. It can teach us, for example, that small-islanders from the Lesser Antilles constituted an important category of significant Others for the Trinidadians blacks and coloureds at the time, but not for the Indians and whites. This remains true today.

If one compares its insights and virtues with sociological research carried out in Trinidad during the same period, such as Lloyd Braithwaite's well-known study Social Stratification in Trinidad (1975 [1953]), one is compelled to conclude that the novel defends its place as an important piece of Trinidadian ethnography. In fact, Braithwaite's arguments concerning ethnicity and rank resemble Mittelholzer's, and his evidence is frequently anecdotal and thus similar to that of the novelist. Braithwaite's study lacks some of the detail and introspective qualities of the novel, but contains more comprehensive and accurate descriptions about rank categories, historical circumstances and features of Trinidadian society. Braithwaite's explanations follow the basic Parsonian schema fashionable at the time. In sum, the novel and the sociological study are complementary, and they tend to support each other. Mittelholzer's ethnography is superb, and his examples are striking and rich in connotations this should not come as a surprise, since he has himself invented them. Like a sociological or anthropological treatise, a book like A Morning at the Office can be distorting as well as liberating as an addendum to one's own ethnography. It is littered with ethnic prejudices and attempts to persuade the reader about the validity of a particular model of Trinidadian society. Since its central assumptions are not made explicit and since the argument, as it were, is clothed in the poetic and suggestive language of literature, it can be seductive reading. Since scholars try to present their argument in a clear and unambiguous fashion, it may be easier to argue against a sociological study than a novel because it is easier to discern its central contentions.

There is a second level at which Mittelholzer's novel functions as ethnography. At this level, it can be read as an ethnographic source rather than an ethnographic description. As already suggested, the book is an inadvertent statement of the author's biases and ideological position in multi-ethnic colonial Trinidad. At this level, the author makes spontaneous, non-reflexive and frequently implicit statements about his cultural universe; in Holy and Stuchlik's (1983) terminology, he performs an act rather than uttering a statement. In order to appreciate this aspect of Mittelholzer's novel, one must know something about the author. One will need to know that he was an immigrant from British Guiana to Trinidad, that his social identity from boyhood was that of a lower-middle class coloured, whose main ambition since adolescence had been to live in England and write books for an English audience. Mittelholzer's own positioning in Trinidadian society can thus contribute to explaining his unusual sensitivity to ethnic processes. As a foreigner, he could adopt a fairly detached view, and as a coloured person from a poly-ethnic society similar to Trinidad, he belonged to an ambiguous ethnic category himself. In order to understand the significance of the author's social identity here, one must have additional knowledge of the societies in question. Only then can one discern, between the lines, how Mittelholzer produces through his novels a version of a world where good manners and proper language matter more than racial origins, and where Indian culture is ultimately a crude peasant culture which is justly marginalized in confrontation with the sophisticated, witty and gracious creole culture characteristic of the coloured bourgeoisie.4 At this level, the book cannot be evaluated as ethnography by a reader who is not already familiar with West Indian societies.

Mittelholzer's novel is not very well known in Trinidad, and it is certainly not widely read. Its direct impact on Trinidadian society can therefore be considered negligible, unlike that of the next novel which I will consider.

(Excerpt from

Posted by jebratt :: Sunday, January 29, 2006 :: 0 comments

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