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Dialectic Cricket

By C.L.R. James
Pantheon, $16.95

In 1963, when C. L. R. James's Beyond a Boundary was first published, spectator sports (unlike blood sports) rarely figured in serious fiction, and they were almost never subjected to searching critical-political-historical analysis. There was good sportswriting, sure, but only within journalism's built-in limitations of space, tone, and occasion; even A. J. Liebling's The Sweet Science--at the time, Beyond a Boundary's only full-length competition this side of Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon--was a collection of New Yorker pieces. And although there were valuable essays or chapters from the likes of Brecht, McLuhan, God help us Norman Podhoretz, and the criminally neglected Reuel Denney, not one professional thinker found the games he loved worthy of an entire book.

Of course, if you define "professional thinker" stringently, that holds true to this day; in athletics as in all other popular culture there's still a dearth of major league books. But at least this new edition, the first look U.S. fans have had at Beyond a Boundary, takes on all comers in a recognizable arena. And where before the book seemed a sport (a mutant, a freak, a caprice of nature: the word's etymology is far from entirely complimentary), now it has the unmistakable lineaments of a champion. With all due respect to Roger Angell and Roger Kahn and Harry Edwards, they don't belong on the same field with C.L.R. James. I'm not even sure they can share the same grounds.

James didn't become a world-class bigdome in academia. Born the son of a Trinidadian schoolteacher in 1901, he was a devotee of town cricket by age six and soon after proved a prodigy in English literature as well--he read Vanity Fair every three months, we are told, for most of his boyhood. But though he was rewarded with a free education at the finest government school on the island, he declined to go on to Oxford or some such after graduating at 18; instead he worked as a schoolteacher, with plenty of writing and plenty of cricket on the side. During the '20s he gradually became politicized, and when he finally set off for England in 1932, he had just composed a pioneering treatise on West Indian independence. His patron was England's first black professional cricketer and an old Trinidadian opponent, Learie Constantine, by then such a hero that James was imported to assist with his autobiography. Constantine eventually financed the printing of The Case for West Indian Self-Government and helped James get a get a job reporting cricket for the Manchester Guardian while he prepared his epochal biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, The Black Jacobins. By the time he resettled in the U.S., where he was active as a union organizer from 1938 to 1952, James was an associate of Jomo Kenyatta and Leon Trotsky. Many credit him with originating the idea of the third world vanguard.

Most of this information can be gleaned from Beyond a Boundary, which like a lot of sportswriting by intellectuals celebrates the game's role in socializing and humanizing the author. But Beyond a Boundary is much more than a fond memoir. It has to be, because for James this game is much more than a locus of personal growth--although he never quite comes out and says so, he clearly regards cricket as a human achievement on a par with dialectical materialism itself. Aesthetically, it's a "structurally perfect" enactment of a fundamental "dramatic spectacle" that in addition epitomizes the " 'movement'" and "'tactile values'" singled out by Berenson as the prime constituents of significant form in the visual arts. Historically, it preserved essential agrarian values in an era of rampaging industrialization, and continues to do so, though not without the deformities struggle imposes, in the face of a "decline of the West" that James dates to 1929. Politically, it's been instrumental in bringing down racial barriers throughout what was once the British Empire. And on every level its interactions with its audience have expressed ( the inexorable desire of human beings for genuine democracy.

Even if you adjudge all this rather eccentric (and who wouldn't?), you have to grant it an impressive audacity. It's easy enough for centrists like Angell and Liebling to wax romantic over the symbolic competitions they treasure, because the rules of the game flatter their presumption that competitiveness is both innate and containable. James, however, almost alone among philosophers of sport, is a leftist, and not only that--he's a left historian. His all-encompassing social vision gives this book an emotional sweep and intellectual reach the centrists can't match. But unlike most left historians, who are rarely utopian-spirited enough to account gracefully for the unruly distractions of aesthetic pleasure (let alone competition or play), James enjoys that sense of connectedness to his own childhood which marks fully functional adults of whatever political persuasion. For him, discovering Marx didn't mean dismissing Thackeray or cricket, it just meant understanding them. Comfortable with such supposedly bourgeois categories as the human condition (though he certainly views it more hopefully than Norman Podhoretz), he has no trouble accepting a world of winners and losers, and he gets a kick out of heroic individuals even when their exploits don't seem to illustrate noble lessons about sacrifice to history and the common good.

Just as he does in his 1936 novel Minty Alley, James takes an almost Dickensian relish in the colorful characters he sketches in Beyond a Boundary--from the blacksmith-batsman Cudjoe, the first and only black on his turn-of-the-century team, to W. G. Grace, whom I'd call the Babe Ruth of cricket if I thought the Babe's rough and rowdy ways likely to please James, who credits the moderately well-fixed Englishman Grace with focusing all the creative democratic and anti-capitalist instincts of the Victorian populace. But although there's a sense in which what he values most about both Cudjoe and Grace is their apparent inutility. It would be misleading to leave it at that. For like the post-Freudian, young-Hegelian Marxians/anarchists of the counterculture generation, James believes that the purpose of revolution is to liberate the realm of the apparently useless--which is also the realm of pleasure, beauty, spirit, the meaning of life. What sets him apart from these much younger theorists, not to mention their intellectual progenitors (and James's slightly younger contemporaries) in the Frankfurt School, isn't merely that he was broad-minded enough to find such virtues in popular culture, in cricket and later calypso. It's that he discovered them there. Thackeray and Trotsky helped, no doubt about it. But it was the enjoyment James took in cricket, and the meaning the game's "mass" audience found there, that inspired him to work with the people as well as write about them, that made his politics more than the obsessive rage for justice into which leftism so often devolves.

The prose of Beyond a Boundary combines the cultivated lyricism of someone like Hazlitt (whose boxing essays James extols) with the excitable quasi-Victorianism of the more hightone English sportswriting, and nothing else I've seen by James equals it stylistically. But the book isn't as perfect as The Black Jacobins, by most accounts James's master-work. In the usual manner of fully functional adults well connected to the lessons of their childhood, he does tend to overpraise the culture that made him what he is, and while in 1962 the description of the racial integration of West Indian cricket that occupies his last 35 pages may have seemed to work structurally, today it clearly suffers from journalism's limitation of occasion. The brief introductory "Note on Cricket" doesn't go far enough toward helping us noncolonials to understand the detailed technical analysis or (much worse) James's passionate philosophical commitment to "back play," whatever exactly that is. Since James is regarded as a prophet in some circles, it's also worth noting that, as far as I can determine, the "young Romantic" James predicted would soon "extend the boundaries of cricket technique with a classical perfection" has not yet made himself manifest. But I still don't know of a greater sports book. And more to the point, I don't know all that many works of cultural theory to match it either.

The Village Voice, July 10, 1984