Authors: Edgar Mittelholzer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Guyanese-born British novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Corentyne Thunder, 1941

A Morning at the Office, 1950 (also known as Morning in Trinidad)

Shadows Move Among Them, 1951

Children of Kaywana, 1952

The Weather in Middenshot, 1952

The Life and Death of Sylvia, 1953 (also known as Sylvia)

The Adding Machine, 1954 (novella)

The Harrowing of Hubertus, 1954 (also known as Hubertus)

My Bones and My Flute, 1955

Of Trees and the Sea, 1956

A Tale of Three Places, 1957

Kaywana Blood, 1958 (also known as The Old Blood)

The Weather Family, 1958

A Tinkling in the Twilight, 1959

The Mad MacMullochs, 1959 (as H. Austin Woodsley)

Eltonsbrody, 1960

Latticed Echoes, 1960

The Piling of Clouds, 1961

Thunder Returning, 1961

The Wounded and the Worried, 1962

Uncle Paul, 1963

The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham, 1965

The Jilkington Drama, 1965

Nonfiction:

With a Carib Eye, 1958 (travel)

A Swarthy Boy, 1963 (autobiography)

Miscellaneous:

Creole Chips, 1937 (short dramatic and prose pieces)

Biography

Edgar Mittelholzer (MIHT-uhl-hohltz-ur) was born in New Amsterdam, Guyana (it was then British Guiana), in 1909 to William Austin Mittelholzer and his wife, Rosamond Mabel Leblanc. He later liked to stress his cosmopolitan origins as “an offshot of a Swiss-German plantation manager of the eighteenth century as well as of a Frenchman from Martinique and an Englishman from Lancashire–all in collaboration with a few of the African slaves.” Though he had a fair complexion and straight hair, his father regarded him as “a swarthy baby.” This parental disdain is elaborated in Mittelholzer’s autobiographical work, A Swarthy Boy. His father’s attitude toward miscegenation was one of the major psychological irritants to which Mittelholzer had to adjust; it manifested itself in the subject matter and thematic bases of his novels and in his personal life. As if to compensate for paternal disapproval, the son committed himself to a search for fame and affection elsewhere. Barno, as Mittelholzer was known to his intimates, took an active interest in cricket while a student at Berbice High School. He decided upon writing as a career and published a pamphlet, Creole Chips, a collection of dramatic and prose pieces of about 250 words each that offers a variety of comic vignettes of everyday life in Guyana and that might have become something more like V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street (1959) if attempted somewhat later. Seven of the short pieces had been published in a local newspaper; when they had been augmented, Mittelholzer peddled the booklet to householders. (Somewhat earlier, in two months during 1929, Mittelholzer had written a novel called “The Terrible Four,” but it–like so many of his later works–was rejected by publishers). Briefly, he tried his hand at poetry, and in 1941, an eight-page poem, “Colonial Artist in Wartime,” was printed. Though it is very uneven in quality, it does contain an indication of a fundamental concern when it asks rhetorically whether love rather than hate “will sprinkle on our souls the dew of calm.” This theme pervades all of his later fiction.{$I[AN]9810000991}{$I[A]Mittelholzer, Edgar}{$S[A]Woodsley, H. Austin;Mittelholzer, Edgar}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Mittelholzer, Edgar}{$I[geo]GUYANA;Mittelholzer, Edgar}{$I[tim]1909;Mittelholzer, Edgar}

In the same year Corentyne Thunder, which had been accepted two years earlier by a publisher who went bankrupt, was issued by Eyre and Spottiswoode, an established London publishing firm, and this success heartened Mittelholzer, for he had by this time become rather depressed by the constant rejection of his work. In December, 1941, he joined the Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve; in March of the following year, he married Roma Halfhide, a Trinidadian. In August, 1942, he was discharged on medical grounds and made Trinidad his home for the next five years, during which he wrote “For Better Things,” a novel intended for the American market but also rejected.

In 1947 Mittelholzer left Trinidad for London, where he revised and expanded “For Better Things” while working for the British Council as a copy typist. It was shown to Leonard Woolf, whose Hogarth Press published it as A Morning at the Office. For many readers, it is the quintessential Mittelholzer novel, an apparently casual depiction of the complicated social and racial relationships prevailing in West Indian societies; yet it is also a detailed sociological analysis of the effects of racial status on personality. The effects of the success of A Morning at the Office were several: Mittelholzer’s literary reputation was established, he was encouraged to even greater invention and output, and he stimulated the exodus of writers from the West Indies to London.

Children of Kaywana, a novel of considerable power and the first volume of a historical saga, received mixed reviews, yet it was an indication that Mittelholzer was more than a facile teller of lightly comic Caribbean stories. The author decided to become a full-time writer and (with support from a Guggenheim Fellowship) moved first to Canada and then to Barbados to continue the Kaywana epic. In Barbados he wrote (with customary speed and fecundity) The Life and Death of Sylvia, Hubertus, and My Bones and My Flute (a tale of the supernatural) within three years.

Mittelholzer and his family returned to England in 1956, and for the next decade, he produced at least one book a year in the continuing hope of both financial and literary success. His speed of composition was hardly consistent with high literary achievement, however, and publishers’ rejections became more consistent. The Piling of Clouds was rejected initially as pornographic, while the paperback edition of The Life and Death of Sylvia carried a lurid illustration and the caption, “She violated the taboos in a desperate search for love.” Even the publishers had trivialized a major literary effort at depicting a soul unable to cope with the realities of life.

Most readers of Mittelholzer note his concern for detailed depiction of place and climate: The Weather in Middenshot and The Weather Family suggest this preoccupation in their titles. In fact, the weather often assumes the role of a character. The actual characters in the novels are almost all abnormal–hosts to eccentricities (in the British comic fiction tradition) or prisoners of deep, demoniac psychoses–as Charles Pruthick in The Piling of Clouds, a rapist, murderer, and suicide. (Mittelholzer attempted suicide several times and finally succeeded in 1965.) Many of the novels depict unrestrained sexuality, and Shadows Move Among Them is almost a foretelling of the Reverend Jim Jones’s People’s Temple in Guyana twenty years later, with its unrestrained violence, compulsion, sex, and religion. Like Jones, Mittelholzer gradually lost his compassion and levity and became didactic, dour, and depressed, and one critic, A. J. Seymour, has described the later novels as “a group of morality sermons.”

Certainly Mittelholzer has an important place in West Indian literature: He was the first writer from the region to become a professional writer in England, and his Kaywana novels offer a factually dependable and absorbing account of Guyanese history. However, the length and didacticism of the later “British” novels suggest a technical decline from A Morning at the Office.

BibliographyBirbalsingh, Frank M. “Edgar Mittelholzer.” In Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander. Vol. 117 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 1992. A comprehensive treatment of Mittelholzer’s life and work.Gilkey, Michael. “Edgar Mittelholzer.” In West Indian Literature, edited by Bruce King. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979. A balanced and comprehensive study.Mittelholzer, Jacqueline. “The Idyll and the Warrior: Recollections of Edgar Mittelholzer.” Bim 17 (June, 1983): 33-89. A somewhat biased account of the writer’s life and books written by his wife. Full of interesting personal information.Seymour, Arthur J. Edgar Mittelholzer: The Man and His Work. Georgetown, Guyana: Ministry of Information and Culture, National History and Arts Council, 1968. The text of four memorial lectures delivered in 1967 by Seymour, the celebrated editor of the Guyanese journal Kykoverall, who maintained a close friendship with Mittelholzer from their school days; it contains details to be found nowhere else and offers judicious evaluations of the writer and his works.
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