Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott has rightly garnered the admiration of astute criticism, among the best, Rei Terada's stellar Derek Walcott's Poetry: American Mimicry (1992); William Baer's edited Conversations with Derek Walcott (1996); and Robert Hamner's Derek Walcott (1981), Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott (1993), and Epic of the Dispossessed (1997). Author Bruce King has for decades been writing on literary topics from Dryden and Marvell to post-colonial literature; most notably, he has explored West Indian drama in general and Walcott's theatre productions in particular. The latest in his line of authoritative single-authored and edited works is also the most comprehensive word on Walcott, the man and his work.
Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life was prepared for Walcott's seventieth birth year, "small repayment" (626), says King, for his enjoyment of Walcott's work. This "token" amounts to a full-blown Walcott encyclopedia, arranged chronologically and geographically into eight parts that each average a four to seven-year period of Walcott's life journey: from childhood in St. Lucia with a widowed mother during the Great Depression, to founding theatre companies in Trinidad, to becoming established in the literary scenes of New York and Boston, to international fame and fortune in the aftermath of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The biography is horizontally rich, probing several stories at once, intent on revealing the full spectrum of Walcott's "ambitions, dreams, false directions, continual struggles, achievements, jokes, emotional outbursts, hard work, contradictions, . . .leadership, emotional need, and use of others" (viii). This undertaking would be laudable under any conditions, but given that Walcott was uncooperative, "reluctant" (vii) to endorse King's research that would inevitably touch on private or family matters, and would not authorize the published biography, it is all the more remarkable an achievement, as King had to resort to public record and second-hand conversation rather than direct Walcott input. Walcott did, nevertheless, approve King's abundant use of artwork, drama memorabilia, and personal and professional photographs that appear in the volume's twenty-four pages of illustrations.
I was struck by how King's presentation exceeds traditional expectations of biography and the exploration of one artist's oeuvre. This is the story, too, of the stressful public and private worlds of publication, theatrical production, and guest appearance; of cultural movements and artistic festivals; of conflicts arising from issues of gender and color; of politics, tourism and indigenous life; of a Caribbean island and its geography, history, and spirit.
The biography highlights common Walcottian themes: how complex the issue of race is for this man, whose heritage is more than half white, who felt "Black Power slogans as intensely as he rejected them" (269), and whose preference as director is color-neutral casting for his plays. Gender is another complex and uneasy theme: King explores Walcott's devotion to a strong and intelligent mother while also describing what he sees as Walcott's difficulty with and condescension toward most other women. Themes of Walcott as Odyssean wanderer and Crusoe castaway are counterpointed with Walcott's necessary existence in New York and Boston and his enduring daydream of beachcombing and painting on St. Lucia.
On the other hand, the book is simply too long and contains intrusive tangents and repetitions—among examples are Walcott's never having learned to drive and his refusing to speak French in France. Its minutiae—of monetary negotiation, daily classroom or travel schedule, more reviewer response than we need, and detail about casual professional associates—all bog the book down and perhaps belonged in an appendix.
I also found King's emotional tone uneven. While it is touching to read about a nineteen-year-old Walcott listening to his poetry on a BBC broadcast "at home in a darkened drawing room with his back turned towards surrounding friends and family, pretending to be nonchalant" (62), the detail has no larger context in that the book offers few other intimate cameos. There is a chasm between the poignancy of that scene and King's psychological interpretations: "For a poet who supposedly no longer believed in religion, Walcott was, and remains, haunted by fears of punishment" (116). This vein shifts from businesslike objectivity in the numerous associations with editors and agents; to gloom and doom, and even philosophical musing.
Still, the biography is decidedly rich and useful. We eavesdrop on Walcott's poetry seminars and drama workshops; we follow his forays into songwriting and film. We are given solid explications of works published and unpublished. We become privy to Walcott's influences from Auden and Joyce, his rivalry with Naipaul, his friendships with Lowell and Heaney, his respect for Hemingway, harassment charges, the failed Broadway collaboration with Paul Simon, and some information on parents, siblings, three ex-wives, and three children.
I especially like the section at the end of Chapter 26 where King describes his first meeting with Walcott and the subsequent evolution of King's 1995 book on Walcott's Trinidad Theatre Workshop: the writing here is historic, clear-headed, and visionary, and it nicely balances Walcott, the man, with Walcott, the artist. This also occurs in the prolonged description of the festivities and honors following Walcott's well-deserved Nobel Prize: dinner parties (with menu specifics); commemorative Walcott stamps, a calendar, phone cards; a week and a public square named after him; an offer (declined) of knighthood from the St. Lucian government. I appreciate the way King tracks the nascent, then burgeoning reputation of this angst-ridden, sympathetic genius. King does not shrink from showing Walcott's depressions, anger, self-pity, his emotional distance and heavy drinking, or his humiliation tactics when auditioning actresses. I admire how King scattered seeds from the early poems and plays that flowered into Walcott's later masterpiece Omeros, and how King's 20 page explication of Omeros's multi-layered themes and history, stunningly shape-shifting characters, and ardent reader response bear testimony to that work's epic literary and cross-cultural achievement. Readers will find indispensable King's ample information about unpublished, aborted, or otherwise inaccessible Walcott manuscripts. And King gives a useful preview of the current Walcott work in press, Tiepolo's Hound.
Two decades ago, in "The Schooner Flight," Walcott said of himself, "[E]ither I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." Thanks to King, we here have ample evidence that Derek Walcott is a world. Put more precisely, he is several worlds at once, and these worlds are both conflicting and illuminating.