The American Interest in 'Beyond a Boundary'
At first glance, one might wonder what interest CLR James, born in 1901 on the island of Trinidad, might have for students and scholars of the United States. When we move away from his explicitly political and anti-colonial work and to his Beyond a Boundary (1963), a book ostensibly about the sport of cricket, that wonder might be still greater. This is not a game especially embraced by America in the twentieth century, after all. The book, however, is far more than a cricket book – James himself described it as ‘neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography’, and to be sure it offers not only these aspects but far more besides. In 2005, The Observer called it the third-best book written on sport ever (behind noted American author Norman Mailer and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch), adding "To say 'the best cricket book ever written' is pifflingly inadequate praise."
In recalling these laurels, the aim is not to say that this is simply a good book about cricket, but that James’ subject matter is far more reaching. Though his title Beyond a Boundary has obvious postcolonial resonance it applies just as much to his focus, as James look not just to the game of cricket but to the world that cricket takes place in.
The pull of America then becomes far more obvious when we start to think about James and his work against the backdrop of a wider Atlantic world. The colonial equation itself is quite simple and straightforward – the islands of Trinidad and Tobago had been contested and ruled by different European powers until the end of the eighteenth century when Britain (who already held Tobago) invaded Trinidad. Cricket was brought to the islands by the British military, in much the same way that it was transported to the other islands of the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. The connections with the United Kingdom, then, are straightforward. But there is half the distance between the Trinidad and Tobago and the United States as there is behind those islands and the UK. The country exists in a North American world with an economic and military superpower – relatively speaking – on its doorstep, one that would have huge cultural influence around the world across the course of the twentieth century. We should not, then, be surprised that Americanists can also pick things up from such a wide-reaching book.
One is an exploration, particularly, of the difference in attitudes towards sport, and concepts like fair play. He tells the story of visiting the US in 1938 and seeing and hearing supporters hurling abuse at players, coaches, and officials. He says this was done ‘as a matter of course’. This is so far removed from the ethos of cricket that he observes Americans became concerned, and asked whether or not he was enjoying the game, and he reveals to us – though no record is made as to whether he said this to them – that while the game was enjoyable, it was the spectator culture that he could not enjoy. Similarly, the routine challenging of the officials was problematic – though the idea that this does not happen in cricket would probably cause many umpires to give a wry smile.
James calls these national characteristics, not just in Americans but in himself, realising that he has been informed by the public-school ethos of Britain. Conversely, his observation is that the Americans stand far more for individualism than for institutions. He is horrified to find that student athletes have accepted money from bookmakers to lose sporting events but is perplexed to find that other Americans, even those he would consider political, do not share that horror. The concept of school honour runs deep in James, as aware as he is of its colonial origins – while he notes that ‘these young people had no loyalties to school because they had no loyalties to anything […] Each had to work out his own individual code.’ There are few more succinct definitions of one of the major strands in American political thought.
James’ other references to the US are mostly literary. He mainly refers to Thackeray, clearly a favourite author, but American writers do get a mention on occasion and it is interesting to observe exactly how James utilises them in Beyond a Boundary. When James wants to talk about the great batsman as a romantic, extraordinary figure, he reaches to Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. To deal with the ever-changing river, Twain says the river pilot is never fully off duty, constantly hearing and registering reports about the river and using that up-to-date information when at work. James says, ‘Great batsmen are the same, they are not like you or me.’
Perhaps a still-more-telling literary allusion comes when trying to describe the cultural impact on Victorian England of the greatest cricketer of his generation, W.G. Grace. Here, James reaches not for another great Victorian icon, but to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This is another instance in which the connection is not immediately obvious – where, it is fair to ask, is the connection between an anti-slavery novel and the captain of England and Gloucestershire?
The link that James draws here is one of scale. He writes that the novel had such huge popularity that it inspired melodramas, and sold millions of copies all over Europe, including in the UK. He suggests that W.G. Grace had a similar position in the Victorian imagination. With one caveat – saying, perhaps naturally enough, that ‘what was in the hearts and minds of the people of Victorian England I cannot say for certain’ – he offers a tentative reading that the flight of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was popular because it represented a symbolic flight from the industrial world, so too did W.G. Grace’s mastery of a bucolic game ‘made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian age.’