Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott [NOOK Book]


Nobody's Nation offers an illuminating look at the St. Lucian, Nobel-Prize-winning writer, Derek Walcott, and grounds his work firmly in the context of West Indian history. Paul Breslin argues that Walcott's poems and plays are bound up with an effort to re-imagine West Indian society since its emergence from colonial rule, its ill-fated attempt at political unity, and its subsequent dispersal into tiny nation-states.

According to Breslin, ...
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Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott

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Nobody's Nation offers an illuminating look at the St. Lucian, Nobel-Prize-winning writer, Derek Walcott, and grounds his work firmly in the context of West Indian history. Paul Breslin argues that Walcott's poems and plays are bound up with an effort to re-imagine West Indian society since its emergence from colonial rule, its ill-fated attempt at political unity, and its subsequent dispersal into tiny nation-states.

According to Breslin, Walcott's work is centrally concerned with the West Indies' imputed absence from history and lack of cohesive national identity or cultural tradition. Walcott sees this lack not as impoverishment but as an open space for creation. In his poems and plays, West Indian history becomes a realm of necessity, something to be confronted, contested, and remade through literature. What is most vexed and inspired in Walcott's work can be traced to this quixotic struggle.
Linking extensive archival research and new interviews with Walcott himself to detailed critical readings of major works, Nobody's Nation will take its place as the definitive study of the poet.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226074283
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 340
  • File size: 443 KB

Meet the Author

Paul Breslin is a professor of English at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties, published by the University of Chicago Press, and You Are Here, a collection of poems.
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Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott

By Paul Breslin

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Paul Breslin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226074277

1 - Biographical Sketch

It takes a West Indian a long time to say who he is.
--Derek Walcott

Derek Alton Walcott was born in Castries on January 23, 1930, and grew up just a few blocks from the home of St. Lucia's other Nobel laureate, the economist Sir W. Arthur Lewis, born on the same date in 1915. His parents, Warwick and Alix Walcott, welcomed two children into the world that day: Derek and his fraternal twin, the late Roderick Aldon. A daughter, Pamela, had been born two years earlier. Walcott's immediate grandfathers--a Dutchman from Saint Martin on his mother's side and an Englishman from Barbados on his father's--were white and relatively wealthy, and his immediate grandmothers primarily of African descent and poor. He was, as he would later put it in his most famous early poem, racially "divided to the vein."

Warwick Walcott died on April 23, 1931, after surgery for a mastoid infection. Although the future poet, only a year old at the time, could have no direct memory of him, the father's presence remained in the house. His paintings-- he had been a skillful amateur watercolorist--and other "revered, silent objects" (Another Life, in CP, 153) hung on the walls andstood on the shelves, meticulously cared for by his widow. He also left behind him a circle of artistically inclined friends who remained close to the family. They included, as his son Derek would later recall, "a violinist, an ex-merchant seaman, an inveterate reciter who had seen Barrymore's Hamlet, and a professional painter named Harold Simmons." His profession had been the Civil Service; he was Clerk of the First District Court when he died, and was to have become Acting Deputy Registrar. Alix Walcott was the Head Teacher of the Methodist Infant School, also serving occasionally as Head of the Methodist Primary School. She encouraged the talents of her sons, who often put on plays in the house, and was to live a long life, in contrast to the sad brevity of her husband's. She died in 1992 at the age of ninety-four.

The Walcotts' Methodism was a minority religion in St. Lucia. The dominant religion was Catholicism, a legacy of the strong French influence in the island. St. Lucia changed hands between France and England thirteen times before an 1814 treaty awarded it to the English, who kept it until it became an independent nation in 1979. The English, as a rule, wanted to make their money in the West Indies and go home, whereas the French took more trouble to inculcate their culture and religion. The folk idiom is still a French-lexicon creole; it is heard at least as frequently as English in the Castries marketplace and more frequently out in the countryside. Walcott was relatively "middle-class," mulatto rather than "black," Methodist rather than Catholic. Because Alix Walcott would often invite her pupils and their families to the house, the family was less distanced from poorer St. Lucians than might be expected. Nonetheless, Walcott felt estranged, by his Methodist upbringing, "from the common life of the island."

At the time of Walcott's birth, the population of St. Lucia was less than 80,000, perhaps as little as 60,000. Even today, its population is estimated at just slightly over 150,000. Castries, its largest town, had a population of 17,500 in 1961, and by 1990 had grown to about 45,000. The island is twenty-seven miles long and fourteen miles wide, small compared to Trinidad or Jamaica, let alone Cuba or Hispaniola. Its mountainous terrain makes travel a slow progress through continuous switchbacks, with vertiginous drops to the side of the two-lane road enjoining caution more eloquently than any signage. Despite the recent improvements on the roads along the leeward coast, a trip from Castries to Vieux Fort, at the island's southern tip, takes nearly half a day. The windward side has a flatter and faster highway, but some parts of the coastline are inaccessible. To get to Dauphin, the setting of one of Walcott's plays, one must simply abandon the car and walk the last two miles or so. Before 1963, the island's main product was sugar, with bananas gradually increasing in importance until, in that year, "bananas emerged as the premier cash crop, a position they have not since relinquished." In Walcott's childhood, Castries Harbor still served as a coaling station, though its coal trade had been declining since the 1920s.

By the usual criteria of modernization or "progress," as well as by that of size, St. Lucia does not match the larger islands, or even some of the smaller ones such as Barbados. According to the 1946 census, 43.4 percent of St. Lucians "spoke only [francophone] Creole," although in Castries only 9 percent were entirely without English, whereas "in the North East districts" (i.e., the sparsely populated countryside around Monchy) the percentage rose to 56.5. When Walcott began his career, more than 40 percent of his countrymen could not speak the language in which he wrote. To be sure, the percentage of non-English speakers had already declined from more than 60 percent in 1911, and has continued to decline since. But as of 1980, only 50 percent of St. Lucian adults had attained literacy. In that year, St. Lucia's per capita income was $850 U.S., which was far behind that of Trinidad and Tobago ($4,370) and Barbados ($3,040) and significantly behind Cuba ($1,407) and Jamaica ($1,030). To speak of a St. Lucian "middle class" is to speak of a small elite, and under the colonial rule of Walcott's childhood and youth it was smaller still, comprising mainly the class of civil servants to which his father belonged, a "brown bourgeoisie" allowed to climb just so high and no higher in the hierarchy of colonial administration.

Middle-class St. Lucians sometimes regarded local folklore and folk traditions as embarrassing crudities to be left behind, but this was not so in Walcott's family. His great-aunt, Sidone Wardrope, would recite folk tales for the two brothers when they visited her in the country; Harold Simmons, who taught Walcott and St. Omer painting, was also a folklorist, one of the first educated St. Lucians to take the island's vernacular culture as worthy of serious study.

Any sketch of Walcott's life must pause and pay tribute to Simmons, who became in many respects a father to the fatherless Walcott. Edward Baugh writes that "it was he, more than anyone else, who inspired Walcott to love and care for the common people, as he had opened the eyes of Walcott and St Omer and others, like the amateur photographer Leo St Helene, to the beauty of the St Lucian Countryside." Not only did Simmons teach Walcott painting, he encouraged the boy's interest in poetry. Book 1 of Another Life recalls that Simmons introduced the young Walcott to the poems of the Jamaican poet George Campbell; it was Simmons who brought Walcott's poetry to the attention of Henry Swanzy, who soon afterward invited the eighteen-year-old poet to read on his "Caribbean Voices" BBC program; and it was Simmons's review in 1950 of a joint exhibit of paintings by Walcott and St. Omer that encouraged Walcott to choose poetry as his vocation: "Words and imagery are Derek's forte, the brush with discipline will be Dunstan's citadel."

Born in 1914, uneducated beyond high school, Simmons entered the Civil Service in 1946 and did rather well for himself. He rose to the post of District Officer for the Southern District of St. Lucia and edited The Voice of St. Lucia from 1957 to 1959. And yet, despite these successes, he remained something of a pariah. Simmons "epitomized the romantic idea of the artist. He was unconventional in dress and habits, contemptuous of middle-class pretentions," and such attitudes were ill tolerated in the tight colonial society of St. Lucia. Feeling his own isolation keenly, he committed suicide in 1966.

Simmons argued for the necessity of "a distinctive West Indian art," which would come when artists stopped following academic prescriptions for color combination, which "create an atmosphere that is foreign to the tropics," and made color "approximate truth." "Art in itself could not be called art unless it springs from the people," he insisted, "unless it records those things felt and experienced." He believed strongly in the ideal of a unified West Indian culture, urging at the inaugural meeting of the St. Lucia Arts and Crafts Society that its efforts be moved by "a desire to forge a link in the cultural chain that can bind the islands together." He wrote essays about West Indian traditions of cooperation and self-help; about the Carib Petroglyph at Dauphin; about any aspect of local history and tradition that caught his interest.

In 1995 I visited Simmons's widowed sister-in-law in her secluded house on the "Back of the Morne." She showed me several of Harry's paintings, which demonstrate great technical skill, if not a strongly developed individual style. The most visible influences are Van Gogh and Gauguin, but the use of color follows his own demand for truth to West Indian landscape. Simmons's memory is still green for those who were close to him; during that first talk late in the afternoon by Choc Bay, Dunstan St. Omer said, apropos of nothing, "this is Harry's hour."

In Another Life Walcott recalls that "about the August of [his] fourteenth year," as he was wandering in the countryside "somewhere above a valley / owned by a spinster-farmer, [his] dead father's friend," he "dissolved into a trance," moved by "a pity more profound / than [his] young body could bear." The earliest fruit of this epiphany was apparently the blank verse poem "1944" that appeared in The Voice of St. Lucia, August 2, 1944 (the following summer, the August of his fifteenth year). It was his first publication. In it, the young poet wished that he had never been "taught of God, / By mortal mouth, or man's dry means of lesson," but been left to learn of God from the experience of nature: "Then would my wanderings among the quiet woods / Be my first lesson from the Holy Book." It anticipates the mature poet's desire for an "Adamic" New World poetics in its exclamation:

Oh! in what happy state I would then be

As an acknowledged friend to bird or beast

As our first father was--alive and free,

And who would not, happy in that condition

Rejoice he lived?

Aside from showing a precocious competence in versification, the poem would be of little interest had its author not become Derek Walcott. Its sentiments seem conventional and inoffensive.

They were not conventional and inoffensive enough, however, for C. Jesse F.M.I., the most powerful Catholic priest in St. Lucia, whose letters to the Voice over the years show him to have been a tenacious fighter for conservative religious values. The fledgling poet found himself chastised in Father Jesse's thirty-line rebuke, "Reflections on Reading the Poem '1944,'" published in the Voice just three days after his innocently heterodox meditation. As Walcott would recall the incident in his first notebook for Another Life,

The priest wrote a mechanically witty reply, in heroic couplets [actually, in a six-line pentameter stanza rhymed ababcc, with every foot in lock-step iambic], accusing me of pantheism, of animism, in short of heresy. It was a painful shock to a fourteen-year-old boy to be told that he loved what he thought were the natural manifestations of a God in a wrong way; and an equal horror to find that the metre at which he had labored could be so facile a form of argument.
Father Jesse would take up the blunt instrument of his verse again in September to bludgeon down curricular reform in the St. Lucian schools:

Yes, I must be quite emphatic,

And declare your scheme aquatic

Since it fails to cater Doctrine for the mind,

True religion is dogmatic,

Neither fluid nor erratic--

So your syllabus my favour ne'er will find!

Father Jesse's poetry could certainly have done with more fluidity and less "Doctrine," but it is of a piece with his pedestrian Outlines of St. Lucia's History, which is faut de mieux the closest thing to a history of the island that yet exists. It reveals a mind retentive of empirical detail and utterly incurious about motive, cause, or consequence. Nonetheless, this was the most powerful and respected priest in the St. Lucia of his day, and the influence of the Church was potent.

Walcott's troubles with the Church would continue into his mature literary career. His first collection, 25 Poems, was "savaged in a review in the Port of Spain Gazette by the Catholic Archbishop." When his play Henri Christophe was first performed by the Arts Guild of St. Lucia in 1950, St. Joseph's Convent provided the hall. To obtain use of the premises, Walcott had to cut the fourth scene, in which the two murderers of Dessalines utter blasphemies like "Ask God why He killed His Son, and what good it did us since." The program booklet included an apology from the producer: "Haiti has had a bloody history and Christophe and Dessalines are products of an age of blood. This play may be offensive in its heretical expressions, its smell of cruelty and carnage, but it cannot half express the facts of the case." In 1956, when the Arts Guild chose The Sea at Dauphin and Roderick Walcott's Banjo Man as the island's drama entries in the West Indian Arts Festival, Father Joseph Vrignaud led the clergy into action against both plays. Despite vigorous protest from, among others, Harold Simmons, both had to be withdrawn.

And yet the Catholic influence was not in all respects a stifling one. Because there was no Methodist school beyond eighth grade, Walcott attended St. Mary's College. In 1947, as Baugh informs us, "the Presentation Brothers of Cork took over the running of St. Mary's," and Walcott, then in the sixth form, became friendly with one of the priests, Brother Liam, who "was full of the tragic-romantic history of Ireland and its literature." As he would later recall,

The whole Irish influence was for me a very intimate one. When the Irish brothers came to teach at the college in St. Lucia, I had been reading a lot of Irish literature: I read Joyce, naturally I knew Yeats, and soon. I've always felt some kind of intimacy with the Irish poets becauseone realized that they were also colonials with the same kinds of prob-lems that existed in the Caribbean. They were the niggers of Britain. Now, with all of that, to have those astounding achievements of genius, whether by Joyce or Yeats or Beckett, illustrated that one could comeout of a depressed, deprived, oppressed situation and be defiant and cre-ative at the same time.

Walcott's own position, as a Protestant in a Catholic culture, could also furnish Irish analogues. But as Baugh remarks, Walcott's first love, Andreuille Alce´e, and his closest friend, Dunstan St. Omer, were both Catholic. A society in which these relationships could openly flourish "was no Ireland in respect of Catholic-Protestant differences and conflicts."

Walcott's wide reading in modernist literature is obvious in 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young (1949), both written before he left St. Lucia to attend the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 1950. The influences of Pound, Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Thomas, and Spender appear as unassimilated borrowings and explicit allusions. As St. Lucian journalist George Odlum has remarked, "it is in itself surprising that Walcott was aware of the movements taking place in the mainstream of 20th Century European literature at a time when most of his colleagues in the sixth form of St. Mary's College . . . were desperately grappling with 19th Century romanticism." While at St. Mary's, Walcott was also writing plays; two of the scripts survived until recently in the collection of Errol Hill, a playwright and director who has known Walcott from his arrival at the university in Jamaica in 1950.

Walcott has described his first venture into publication:

I went to my mother and said, "I'd like to publish a book of poems, and I think it's going to cost me two hundred dollars." She was just a seamstress and a schoolteacher, and I remember her being very upset because she wanted to do it. Somehow she got it;--a lot of money for a woman to have found on her salary. She gave it to me, and I sent off to Trinidad and had the book printed [by the Trinidad Guardian, one of the two major Trinidadian newspapers]. When the books came back I would sell them to friends. I made the money back. In terms of seeing a book in print, the only way I could have done it was to publish it myself.

Simmons introduced Walcott and his work to Frank Collymore, the editor of Bim in Barbados, one of the first literary magazines of distinction in the Anglophone Caribbean. Collymore assisted and encouraged Walcott in preparing the second edition of 25 Poems, published in Barbados in April 1949, and a Walcott poem appeared in Bim for the first time in the December 1949 issue. Soon after Simmons recommended Walcott to Henry Swanzy, Walcott's poetry made its first appearance on "Caribbean Voices" on March 20, 1949. At nineteen, Walcott was already becoming widely known within the Caribbean; in 1952, Errol Hill's London production of Henri Christophe would extend his reputation to England as well.

Three historical events had a large impact on St. Lucian life during Walcott's adolescence. The first was World War II, which was more directly felt in the Caribbean than one might have supposed. As part of the empire, St. Lucia participated; as Gregor Williams notes, "conscription was contemplated but so many volunteered that conscription was not necessary." The U.S. Marines had a base on the northern end of the island, at Gros Islet, and the Army set up at Vieux Fort, on the southern end. But it was in Walcott's home town of Castries, with its large harbor, that "the warriors met. British Navy, West India Regiment, U.S. Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army, French emigrees and refugees." After the Germans occupied France, the neighboring island of Martinique came under the jurisdiction of the Vichy government. Martinicans would cross the twenty-one-mile channel to St. Lucia in small boats, under cover of night, to join the Free French. On March 9, 1942, the war came to St. Lucia's doorstep when "a German submarine boldly entered Castries Harbor and torpedoed two ships tied alongside the Northern Wharf.... Several lives were lost."


Excerpted from Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott by Paul Breslin Copyright © 2001 by Paul Breslin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. Biographical Sketch
2. "Fishing the Twilight for Alternate Voices": The Early Poems and Henri Christophe
3. The Young Playwright in Jamaica
4. Adam's Amnesia: The Uses of Memory and Forgetting
5. Dead Ends and Green Beginnings: Dream on Monkey Mountain
6. Another Life: West Indian Experience and the Problems of Narration
7. "Pulling in the Seine / of the Dark Sea": "The Schooner Flight"
8. Derek Sans Terre: The Poetry of the 1980s
9. Epic Amnesia: Healing and Memory in Omeros
10. Post-Homeric Derek: The Bounty and Tiepolo's Hound
Epilogue: Toward a Just Evaluation of Walcott
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