Tradition, the Writer & Society (1967)

This plan to reprint six critical essays by the leading Guyanese novelist, Wilson Harris was initiated in October 1966. In his draft preface, Harris claims to be unaware of the ongoing interest in these essays, all of which had been published previously in magazines or as ephemeral pamphlets. The classic essay, “Tradition and the West Indian Novel” has since appeared in several critical anthologies and marks a key stage in the theoretical project of defining “genuine autonomy” in Caribbean literature. C.L.R. James’s introduction to that essay, first produced as part of a pamphlet for the West Indian Students’ Union in 1964, is included as an Appendix in the New Beacon volume.
Harris was a close friend of John La Rose. He wrote to him in 1966 in support of his work at New Beacon:
I am glad to be in a position to help in a small way with the creation of this new independent publishing venture you have launched, dedicated to a genuine autonomy in critical matters. It calls for much courage and you deserve great commendation. (WH to JLR 6.6.67, NBB/1/3)
Harris was already well-regarded and established by the time of this publication after having published his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, with Faber & Faber in 1960. His status brought further attention to the early work of New Beacon.
Tradition, the Writer & Society (1967) by Wilson Harris. 76pp.


Harris wrote in his brief preface to the collection: “I am conscious, on looking back, of a groping towards something I could not hope to define except within a deepening cycle of exploration. Even the later essays are still incomplete.” (April 1967). This sense of questing after something as-yet-intangible runs throughout the essays and is a key tackling the intricacies of Harris’s written style. The essays explore notions of Caribbean tradition, history, language and heritage both in what they say, and in how they say it. The writing is provocative, often abstract, and demands the reader’s full attention. Its intent is less a practical move towards the creative autonomy in Caribbean literature, than an individual exploration of the possibility of renewing the practice of fiction and art more generally beyond existing conventions (Bundy, 31). As editor, John La Rose encouraged readers’ understanding of the process of critical development in Harris’s ideas by carefully curating the order of the selected essays around the longer central essay, “Tradition and the West Indian Novel”. The essays cover the following themes:
  • Art and criticism (a short discussion of North American literature which defines art as “life in its essential contradiction” (12)).
  • Form and realism in the West Indian artist (a discussion of poetic symbols and rhythm in Harris’s own poetry and of the “architectual problem” (20) faced by the West Indian artist).
  • Books – A Long View (a rumination on poetic language that moves through relative definitions of art; historical resistances to building connections with others through art; and the dangers of reified tradition).
  • Tradition and the West Indian Novel (which argues against a consolidating form of literary realism in favour of immersion in creative experience and expression of “the depth of inarticulate feeling” (28) in the West Indian novel).
  • The Writer and Society (which sets out what Harris terms the author’s “drama of consciousness (48) and the sense in which a writer can ever “belong” to society).
  • Struggle of the Modern (a review of two anthologies of African literary prose).
C.L.R. James’s closing essay responds to Harris’s essay on the West Indian Novel through the lens of existentialism and the philosophical work of Martin Heidegger on language. James reinforces Harris’s appeal to recognise the full complexity of Caribbean history, while disagreeing with his suggestion that West Indian novels have tended towards “‘the most conventional and documentary techniques’” (73).


As for the other early publications, the title page of the book noted its publisher as: “New Beacon Publications. London – Port of Spain” ”. 
                                                Early New Beacon Logo
Harris paid close attention to the production process and wrote to La Rose regarding the packaging: “In your blurb I think it would be enough simply to say that the essays reflect a certain development of tragic premises which were there in the beginning. Something like that at any rate.” (WH to JLR 13.3.67, NBB/1/3). The production file contains a longer correspondence regarding which essays to include or exclude from the collection, and the eventual decision to exclude one on the painting of Denis Williams and another on “the Guiana Book” by A.J. Seymour, both of which offered what Harris termed “premature” judgements. By giving more permanent visibility to Harris’s earlier magazine publications in the Caribbean (in Kyk-over-al and elsewhere), the collection is, in part, a homage to Harris’s own early publishing work in Guyana with the writers surrounding Kyk-over-al journal. In a separate document, La Rose compares that coterie to the group surrounding Virginia and Leonard Woolf and their publishing house, the Hogarth Press, an example of the Caribbean and British precursors of New Beacon’s publishing work (LRA/01/0368).


Harris did not always have an easy relationship with the press. In May 1967, La Rose wrote to the editor of The Observer in response to John Coleman’s review of Harris’s novel The Waiting Room. Harris himself declared that the review was “not merely a personal attack but something which is part and parcel of a bankruptcy of criticism and insight” (26.5.67, LRA/01/0368). The letter was not published, though La Rose felt strongly enough to write again when it did not appear, further defending Harris’s work and pushing for a more informed acknowledgement of Caribbean writing.
Harris’s fiction and non-fiction were widely reviewed however, as testified by the quotations on the back cover of Tradition, the Writer & Society from Derek Walcott (from a review in the Sunday Guardian, 20.5.65), Anthony Burgess (The Spectator, 3.12.65) and C.L.R. James (New Society). A further review from the Times Literary Supplement did not make it to the final cover. Harris and La Rose took some great care in their choice of quotations to place on the cover. Harris amended C.L.R. James’s quotation as follows: “In every line that he has written, critique and all, he pursues a preoccupation with being, care, dread, time and the pervading consciousness of death” (WH to JLR, 9.6.67, NBB/1/3). He suggested that “I feel it is better to delete ‘of death’. Few people understand the sense in which ‘death’ is used here. And it might be wiser to let them come to this through the work as a whole. I would suggest therefore putting the quote as corrected” (Ibid). The letter gives a sense of the author’s awareness of his work’s complexity and the need to package the essays appropriately.
Kamau Brathwaite described New Beacon’s volume of Harris’s essays as “one of the most important publications of our decade” (LRA/01/0368; CAM files). Ted Hughes wrote praising this “exceedingly interesting pamphlet” and asking more generally about La Rose’s publishing venture (18.12.66 TH to JLR, LRA/01/0395). Ivan Van Sertima also wrote linking the success of this book to New Beacon’s larger project:
I was simply taken aback by your production of Wilson’s essays. It is truly a remarkable piece of production, second to no paperback I have seen in England. I hope your venture will be successful because you are really doing something very extraordinary. It is far superior to anything done in the Caribbean in the field of publishing.” (IVS to JLR 9.8.67, LRA/01/0803/2).
Letter to John La Rose from Ivan van Sertima, dated 9 August 1967. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0803/1
Harris was paid royalties regularly as the book-publishing side of New Beacon began to settle into its stride. Records for royalties and sales are scattered through the files of correspondence and the production file, and are particularly complete for the early years. These royalty statements show that the collection sold consistently in Britain, the West Indies and the US in its first years with over 1200 copies sold by July 1971 (321 in the UK, 430 in the West Indies, and 101 in the US). In 1973, La Rose approached Harris about reprinting Tradition, the Writer & Society. Harris, however, was not enthused by the prospect since he felt “it is really necessary for me to deepen these implications” (WH to JLR, 26.4.73, LRA/01/0368). He wished New Beacon future success, declaring that “I am personally happy that they appeared when they did almost at the beginning of your publishing venture” (ibid). Yet a handwritten note appears on the bottom of Harris’s letter:
“Rec’d 27/4/73. Spoke to Wilson today explaining books already printed and just waiting for binding; probably ready in 1 to 2 weeks”.

Further reading

Harris, Wilson, Selected Essays of Wilson Harris. The unfinished genesis of the
imagination, ed. A.J.M. Bundy, London: Routledge, 1998.