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Global Romanticism V: Scriptology

Palmer-Mercator-1879

by Manu Samriti Chander

I began to discuss in my last post the Guyanese author Egbert Martin, specifically describing him as a Shelleyan, unacknowledged legislator. Though we know little about Martin’s life, it is believed his ancestry was at least partly German and African or Afro-Caribbean.  From his remarks on Scriptology, his collection of short stories believed until very recently to be lost, it is certain that he identified as Creole, a descendant of colonial settlers, which places him within a group experiencing a new kind of self-awareness in the nineteenth century. By the time of Martin’s death in 1890, the population of Guyana had grown drastically, mostly due to heavy immigration from Portugal, India, Africa, and China. Consequently, the native Creole population found itself working to establish an identity that would distinguish it from the newly arrived communities.

Martin speaks to the important function of literature in Creole identity-formation in his preface to Scriptology:

I lay these efforts before their view, expecting…support from all in general, but from creoles in particular…. Why, the very fact of anything literary…being published in Demerara by a Demerarian, ought to be a kind of talismanic pass-word to other creoles for recognition and support.

The “talismanic” aspect of Martin’s collection is worth consideration. The Greek root of the word, τέλεσμα or “telesma,” describes a religious offering, a religious tribute with a specific end (telos). Generally speaking, the purpose of a talisman is to ward off danger, although in the seventeenth century the word took on a particular nuance. “A statue,” according to the OED, “set up…to preserve the community, house, etc. from danger,” a talisman performed an important public function. It reflected the boundaries of a community—distinguishing those whom the object would protect—while promising to keep that community whole.

As a talisman, Scriptology organizes Creole audiences into a cohesive unit. For, while the collection is meant to appeal to readers “in general,” it is the Creole reader who will see his or her own story reflected in Martin’s collection. It is the Creole reader who will identify with the situations of the characters, Harry Seymour’s “colonial fever” in “The Hole in the Pan,” for example, or Mr. Price’s alienation from the small and ever-scrutinizing community of gossips in “The Two Harvest-Thanksgivings.” It is the Creole reader who will recognize the “Court-house, the Hospital and the Bridge” that Basil Emery visits in the town of “B———” as the familiar sights of any modernizing colonial settlement. It is the Creole reader who will know the heavy perfume of “the great spotless Victoria Regia” that the unnamed narrator imagines in “Asphyxia.”

Martin’s characters form a discrete class of people, held together by something stronger than geography (in fact, specific geographical references are carefully excluded from Scriptology). They share a language—English—as well as an unspoken vocabulary, a system of social codes, assumptions and expectations (the ideal of companionate marriage that Harry Seymour pursues without success, that Mr. Price finds and loses, and that Basil Emery is too dense to comprehend). Scriptology gives voice to these ideas, sometimes to affirm them, often to satirize them, always to make them visible to an audience familiar with Victorian colonial mores.

Yet while he clearly was concerned with reaching readers at home, Martin also creates a dialogue in his stories that is at once intertextual and international. In his preface he likens Scriptology to the novels of Wilkie Collins and Frederick Marryat, which, according to Martin, provided serious thinkers “a mental safety-valve to the heavier steam-pressure labours of the mind”; elsewhere he quotes popular authors of his day, such as Tennyson, Poe, and Longfellow, as well as those who had already attained canonical status by the end of the nineteenth century, such as Byron and Coleridge.

By calling upon his contemporaries from England and the United States, Martin situates his local stories within a transnational literary field, establishing a kinship between himself and his fellow writers. This is particularly important given Martin’s cultural identity. For the educated, elite Creole of late nineteenth-century Guyana, cultural capital was tied to the success with which one could assimilate metropolitan trends, ideas, and attitudes—this was doubly important for members of the burgeoning black middle-class. Thus when Martin invokes Tennyson, Longfellow, et al., he makes a bid for the legitimacy of Guyanese literature, a claim for acknowledgment both within Guyana and, potentially, beyond.

Manu Samriti Chander is Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. His research interests include nineteenth-century world literature and aesthetic theory. He has published on Immanuel Kant, Pierre Bourdieu, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley. His current project, Brown Romantics, traces the influence of British Romanticism in the literature of South Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

Top image adapted from George Palmer, “The World on Mercator’s Project,” in The Migration from Shinar; or the earliest links between the Old and the New Continents (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1879).


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