The 1926 collection of short fiction Tropic Death by Eric Derwent Walrond (1898-1966) was one of the most lauded “New Negro”/”Harlem Renaissance” books. Years ago, I read something by Walrond in either The New Negro or The Harlem Renaissance Reader and wondered what happened to him. I couldn’t find any other books by him and wondered if he died young like Wallace Thurman and Rudolph Fisher (each of whom published two novels before dying in 1934).
Walrond, who was born in Guyana and raised in Barbados and Panama, resided in the US between 1918 and 1929. Many expected him to write the Great Negro Novel and his successful application for a Guggenheim fellowship looked forward to novels in the plural, but none came, and Walrond published little after leaving Harlem. Most of the fiction he wrote, including all eight (of the total ten) stories from Tropic Death included by Louis J. Paranscandola in his collection of Walrond writings, are set in the Caribbean (including coastal Panama). There are four earlier stories set in Harlem included, with the earliest fiction also set in the Caribbean and most of the late fiction also set there (along with a pair on racism in the “Mother Country”).
Although there are flashes of violence, there is very little plot in any of the “stories.” They are heavy on (fetid) atmosphere, long on discrimination by skin coloration (with lighter-skinned lording it over darker-skinned), tropical rot (the “tristes tropiques”), and renderings of West Indian dialect that are difficult to decode (more difficult than the Black English Vernacular is writings by Fisher or Zora Neale Hurston). Opening at random for an example of the dialect: “Wha’ Oi doin’? Ent um is de troot, ent um?”
Walrond frequently indulged in what some might consider “prose poems” or “lyricism,” but strikes me as spewing lists and perpetrating purple prose. An example from Walrond’s most famous “story”: “He was back in Black Rock; a dinky backward village; the gap rocky and grassy, the roads dusty and green-splashed; the marl, in the dry season, whirling blindly at you; the sickly fowls dying of the pip and the yaws, the dogs, a -rowing, impotent lot; the crop of dry peas and cassava and tannias and eddoes, robbed, before they could feel the pulse of the sun, of their gum or juice; the goats bred on some jealous tenant’s cane shoots, or guided some silken black night down a painter’s gully—and then only able to give a little bit of milk; the rain, a whimsical rarity.” This long sentence has way too many adjectives for anyone reared on Hemingway. It is not empty verbiage, but is typical in being evocative but providing details that don’t advance understanding of the characters or relate to what any of them is doing (the story records a young islander crossing on a boat to the mainland and meeting his father who is ailing, probably having leprosy, the prototype of tropical rot).
There are some lurid (tropical Gothic) death and destruction (The Vampire Bat, the Black Pin), but there is a lack of character development or plot development and of ending (rather than stopping). I don’t know why anyone took Tropic Death as presaging putting together a novel, even a stream of consciousness one. Waldron was a writer of vignettes, not of sustained narrative.
The journalism Paranscandola included is more interesting to me, and certainly easier to read. Walrond wrote for newspapers in Panama, then for Marcus Garvey’s organ Negro World and after Garvey’s notorious meeting with the Ku Kluk Klan Grand Wizard, Walrond wrote for and was business manager of Opportunity, the periodical of the Urban League, edited by Charles S. Johnson. In contrast to Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois (whom Walrond despised as having a “superiority complex” and as being “ashamed he is not white. He hates to be black. In his writing there is a stream of endless woe, the sorrow of a mulatto whose white blood hates and despises the black in him”!), Johnson believed that writers should “tell it like it is” on the ground for “the Negro multitude,” rather than produce uplilft propaganda about the refinements of a small elite (as in the novels of Du Bois protégé Jessie Fauset, one of which Walrond excoriated in a review included in the collection).
Walrond was admired by the Thurman/Hughes/Hurston group (and its prime sponsor, Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro) that rejected providing antiseptic narratives of the triumphs of the “talented tenth” and wrote about the joys and sorrows of ordinary black people. Later, from Great Britain, Walrond wrote lauditorily of Richard Wright’s work. Although I welcome the availability of the book reviews Paranscandola included (including a mixed one on Nigger Heaven, characterized as “a deeply subjective studyt from an exotic Nordic viewpoint of an ebony Paris [that] yet has its moments of racial fiedelity and abiding reality” and “a frontier work of an enduring order”), it is frustrating to find in the bibliography but not in the book reviews that were published in The New York Herald Tribune of books by Fisher, Thurman, and Hurston, and Locke’s collection of plays. (I also with that Paranscandola had included the 1954 “Success Story” that he briefly discusses in his very illuminating introduction.)
The volume contains some interesting pieces and answers the question “What happened to Eric Waldron after Tropic Death?” (His promise fizzled in British exile and he reunited with Garvey there, after sharing an apartment with Countee Cullen in Paris.) I guess the fiction is important in the development of Afro-Caribbean literature, but little more than a footnote to African American literature, though it may appeal to tastes less spartan than mine when it comes to “lyrical” effusions. I much prefer Fisher’s short fiction.
©2004, Stephen O. Murray