Scott McLemee: C.L.R. James Meets Tony Soprano





Half a century before “The Sopranos” hit its stride, the Caribbean historian and theorist C.L.R. James recorded some penetrating thoughts on the gangster — or, more precisely, the gangster film — as symbol and proxy for the deepest tensions in American society. His insights are worth revising now, while saying farewell to one of the richest works of popular culture ever created.

First, a little context. In 1938, shortly before James arrived in the United States, he had published The Black Jacobins, still one of the great accounts of the Haitian slave revolt. He would later write Beyond a Boundary (1963), a sensitive cultural and social history of cricket – an appreciation of it as both a sport and a value system. But in 1950, when he produced a long manuscript titled “Notes on American Civilization,” James was an illegal alien from Trinidad. I have in hand documents from his interrogation by FBI agents in the late 1940s, during which he was questioned in detail about his left-wing political ideas and associations. (He had been an associate of Leon Trotsky and a leader in his international movement for many years.)

In personal manner, James was, like W.E.B. DuBois, one of the eminent black Victorians — a gentleman and a scholar, but also someone listening to what his friend Ralph Ellison called “the lower frequencies” of American life. The document James wrote in 1950 was a rough draft for a book he never finished. Four years after his death, it was published as American Civilization (Blackwell, 1993). A sui generis work of cultural and political analysis, it is the product of years of immersion in American literature and history, as well as James’s ambivalent first-hand observation of the society around him. His studies were interrupted in 1953 when he was expelled by the government. James was later readmitted during the late 1960s and taught for many years at what is now the University of the District of Columbia.

American Civilization’s discussion of gangster films is part of James’s larger argument about media and the arts. James focuses on the role they play in a mass society that promises democracy and equality while systematically frustrating those who take those promises too seriously. Traveling in the American South in 1939 on his way back from a meeting with Trotsky in Mexico, James had made the mistake of sitting in the wrong part of the bus. Fortunately an African-American rider explained the rules to him before things got out of hand. But that experience — and others like it, no doubt — left him with a keen sense of the country’s contradictions....

“The gangster did not fall from the sky,” wrote James. “He is the persistent symbol of the national past which now has no meaning – the past in which energy, determination, bravery were sure to get a man somewhere in the line of opportunity. Now the man on the assembly line, the farmer, know that they are there for life; and the gangster who displays all the old heroic qualities, in the only way he can display them, is the derisive symbol of the contrast between ideals and reality.”...

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