By Petamber Persaud
EDGAR Mittelholzer ushered in the Guyanese novel tradition with the publication in 1941 of his first novel, ‘CORENTYNE THUNDER’, going on to nurture and support that tradition into the 50s and 60s with the publication of his seven other Guyanese novels which included his best-known work, `The Kaywana Trilogy’. He also made sterling contribution to the Caribbean literature, writing novels on Trinidad and Barbados – places he lived after migrating from his homeland.
‘How would the terror and agony of a slave rising become a part of the West Indian experience if Mittelholzer had not made it so?’ Observed Phillip Sherlock in his forward to Kenneth Ramchand’s ‘West Indian Narrative’. While in England, Mittelholzer added to the English novel tradition. Of the 23 novels he wrote, eight were labelled his Guyanese novels. He was indeed a man of many parts and sensibilities and even though he never returned to the land of his birth, he made his most significant contribution of his writing career to the Guyanese novel tradition.
Mittelholzer achieved that much in a short lifespan because he started writing from an early age. In his own words, taken from his autobiography, ‘A SWARTHY BOY’ published in 1963, he related how he began to write:
‘So impressed was I by the silent film serials and by Buffalo Bill that a strong desire came alive in me to create heroes of my own in tales as exciting as those enacted on the screen and in the pages of the periodical I loved. I bought an exercise book and began to write a story.
It was in August 1921 when I was 12 years old that my writing career began and I spent my holidays in writing my long story. I filled my exercise book with pencilled words in a round hand. The story was divided not into chapters but episodes… exactly as it was done in the silent film serials….’
Perhaps he was also influenced by his father who used to write short stories for the Christmas Tides and by his grandmother who was an excellent raconteur. Along with his imaginative writing, he kept a diary since the early 1920s until the time of his death, a remarkable feat that doubled as material for his novels, autobiography and travelogue.
He succeeded in becoming the first professional novelist, living off his writing, coming out of Guyana and the Anglophone-Caribbean because of his do or die attitude by which he lived and by which he died. A philosophy that was linked to his Swiss-German ancestry and nurtured by his admiration for Wagner music, Teutonic values and the perfection of German culture. Some of these autobiographically features – a psychic split or psychic integration - were exhibited in his fiction to such an extent that ‘Mittleholzer’s life and literary career are probably more closely interrelated than is the case with most other writers’.
For some 11 years he bombarded publishers in England with rejected manuscripts after rejected manuscripts until his first novel was published in 1941. He was professional writer on another count; weaving into his story local lore, characters and scenery of the places he lived.
While he was challenging the publishing houses, he wrote, printed and published on his own ‘CREOLE CHIPS’ (1937) which he hawked from door to door in New Amsterdam and other parts of Guyana.
Painter, poet and novelist, Edgar Mittelholzer was born on December 16, 1909, in the town of New Amsterdam, British Guiana, a locality that produced other distinguished novelist including Wilson Harris, Jan Carew and E. R. Braithewaite. Mittelholzer grew up in that former Dutch capital when there was a flourishing of art, music, poetry, literature and reading.
He attended Berbice High School but was expelled when only thirteen after a confrontation with an English teacher who was insulting to the natives. That early he was fighting for what he believed. Mittelholzer was of a swarthy complexion. He came to an early realisation of this complexity for his father was ‘a confirmed Negrophobe’ and the social structure at that time set the White Europeans at the top and Blacks at the bottom. That, along with sex and religion, and strength and weakness, were the main themes of his writing.
In 1941, he left Guyana to join the Navy but was discharged the following year because he was like a fish out of water. In 1942, he married Rona Halfhide in a union that lasted until 1959 when he married Jacqueline Pointer whom he met at a Writers’ Summer School.
After his discharge from the Navy, he returned to the Caribbean, setting up home in Trinidad, furthering and enhancing his career as a novelist with the publication in 1950 of 𠆊 MORNING AT THE OFFICE’.
Although he made rapid house changes during 1952 to 1953, moving from Trinidad to Barbados to Montreal to England and back to Barbados, he published three novels.
While living in Barbados, he focused on the weather and man in his writing producing such books as ‘OF TREES AND THE SEA’ and ‘THE WEATHER FAMILY’.
Professor Victor Ramraj said Mittelholzer was ‘skilled at evoking feelings of isolation and is fascinated by the psychological states of his character especially those given to solitary life …though he employed dialogue skilfully his preferred form of narration is the narrative-descriptive’.
* Mittleholzer, Edgar; A SWARTHY BOY
* Seymour, A. J; EDGAR MITTELHOLZER, the man and his work
* Gilkes, Michael; THE WEST INDIAN NOVEL