Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by David Roediger
C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, like most American-published writing of lasting value from the past half-century, appears ephemeral in the extreme. A self-published little paperback on Herman Melville's fiction, a rare book almost from its appearance, Mariners is nonetheless a minor classic. Written largely while James sat in an Ellis Island prison awaiting a McCarthyite deportation hearing, the book is no academic treatise. Instead, it concentrates upon a sustained and brilliant explication of two books, Moby Dick and Pierre, with brief asides treating other of Melville's famous works. The central thesis of Mariners, that Melville was the first great critic of bureaucratic capitalism and totalitarianism on a world scale, would have benefitted from consideration of other works that James would take up decades later, notably the profound Hegelian Benito Cereno. The absence of lesserknown Melville fiction, probably unavailable to James at the time, reminds us that writing from jail is hardly the adventure some romantic critics imagine it to be. On the other hand, James's contact with the renegades and castaways of Ellis Island breathes fire into the book and a final section on the confinement stands as an interesting memoir of the period, especially because James comes to grips with the mixed motives and the humanity of some Communist prisoners whom he might have dismissed as his "Stalinist opponents."
Three further considerations (among many) mark Mariners as a groundbreaking work. One is that James succeeds in writing a work of literary criticism which can be readily appreciated by those who have no familiarity with the books dis- cussed. To a peculiar degree, and ir a way deserving study by radical writers, James combines the functions of critic and storyteller, of popularizer and analyst. Second, Mariners in its fascinating observations on the working crew of the Pequod and especially of Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo, opens the way for analysis of Melville's perception of capitalism as a world system and of the industrial metaphors in his sea-set novels (a theme recently addressed in a clever chapter of Ron Takaki's Iron Cages. which owes much to James). James, more than any other modern author, appreciates, finally, the humor of Melville, noting at one point, "Almost every sentence [of a section of Moby Dick] can be the subject of a comic strip." That James could write such a line, and mean it as high praise, suggests the degree to which imagination and shrewdness coexist in his criticism.
David Roediger teaches history and an occasional course on Melville at Northwestern University. He is also Books Editor at In These Times.