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Review: Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands by James Epstein

Forthcoming in The American Historical Review

When Stuart Hall died in February 2014, we lost one of the most influential intellectuals of the last sixty years.  He was not a historian, but how does one describe a scholar-activist who wrote so profusely, with such clarity and vision, outside the lines of disciplinary demarcation?  He is best known, certainly in the United States, as a key founder of the field of cultural studies.  But he was writing in a cultural vein before departments or journals of cultural studies existed, and while he is most often, and rightly, associated with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, where he landed in 1964, directing the CCCS from 1968 to 1979, this was just one part of a long life of intellectual and political engagement.  Indeed, Familiar Stranger ends in the year he left London for Birmingham, the same year that he married Catherine Hall (née Barrett), who was to become a preeminent historian of British nineteenth-century gender relations and empire.  The book covers, therefore, the period before Hall held an academic position, although as a public figure he always moved beyond the confines of the university. 

While the book starts with Hall’s birth in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932, progressing through a series of thematic chapters to its chronological destination in 1964, this is not an ordinary memoir.  Like so much about Hall and his writing, it defies neat categories; in terms of literary form, Familiar Stranger invents its own form; like most of his published writing it is also the result of close collaboration.  As Bill Schwarz explains in the preface, the original idea was to produce a relatively short work in the form of a conversation between himself in the role of questioner and Hall to illuminate the main lines of Hall’s intellectual life – one thinks perhaps of the New Left Review interviews with Raymond Williams, which produced a long volume, Politics and Letters (1979).  Schwarz describes how the project grew over many years, with recorded interviews, conversations, and revised transcriptions passing between them.  In poor health for some years, at the time of Hall’s death the manuscript had grown to over 300,000 words.  At a late stage, it was decided to scrap the original dialogic structure, “Bill” slipped into the background and the book was recast as a first-person narrative.  Having conducted the interviews, cooperated in revising the manuscript, and then organizing the final volume, which covers only Hall’s early life (a sequel is to follow), Schwarz’s voice is silently present, his deft editorial hand is evident.  The tone remains deceptively relaxed, as personal testimony is accompanied by a full cast of theoreticians whose thought has influenced Hall’s understanding of the major aspects of his life and times.

The book’s opening sentence, “Sometimes I feel I was the last colonial” (3), sounds a note of ambivalence that resonates throughout.  Born into a colored middle-class family in colonial Jamaica, Hall’s life spanned the final decades of British colonialism and its aftermath: “You could say I have lived … on the hinge between the colonial and post-colonial worlds.” (11)  The book charts a long process of “disidentification” (3), as he leaves Kingston as an eighteen-year old to take up a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, struggling throughout the following years with the gradual decision not to return home, a choice that leaves him unable to feel fully at home in either Jamaica or Britain.  Race mattered, as did class and ethnicity, but not in a static or fully articulated manner, at least not for many years.  As one of the “blackest” members in a socially ambitious family of mixed-racial and ethnic descent (African, Scottish, perhaps Portuguese-Jewish), from early in his life he felt a sense of difference and alienation. 

Hall notes that although everyone understood what “black” meant, the word was never spoken. 

It was only after decolonization (1962 in the case of Jamaica) that “black” became a term of self-identification and the ruptured historical connection to Africa was embraced.  His domineering mother was insistent about their family’s class and racial superiority.  The injuries of colonial subjugation remain close to the surface of Hall’s text.  In contrast to his mother, his father, a hard working employee who rose in the ranks of United Fruit Company, was quietly self-effacing.  Hall resented his father’s toleration of the way he was patronized by white members of his cricket club which the son refused to join.  The invitation to identify with his family’s social pretensions and “their fantasy relationship to colonial dependency” (51) produced repressed, inner rage which he found difficult to explain.  Living in the twilight of colonial rule, yet unable to acknowledge the changes afoot, took a psychological toll on his family, particularly on his older sister, Patricia, whose relationship with a black medical student was abruptly terminated by their mother.

Among the book’s virtues is the sustained interplay achieved between personal experience and history; the formation of subjective identity is written into the processes of historical change. To grow up in the Caribbean during the late colonial period, as Hall so eloquently explains, was to be part of a society where the “past” was “missing,” although traces, afterlives of slavery persisted.  For Hall, the question of cultural memory turns on what histories can be imagined, what has been lost, and what possibilities exist for recuperation.  His narrative is conducted in a dual chronological register, with a bracingly honest attempt to relate how the past was felt as lived experience together with reflections on the meanings of this experience informed by insights gained over time.  The “other” Jamaica, the urban under-class and the cultures of the rural poor, figure in Hall’s story.  The labor rebellions of 1938 assume importance as a pivotal moment in Jamaican history, marking the emergence of a system of mass politics, a modern political world that Hall’s generation inherited but only dimly recollected from youth.  In displaced form, Hall claims an awareness of these momentous events from age six, making 1938 “a sort of symbolic political birthdate.” (46)

 Theory comes into play along with history.  According to Hall, Familiar Stranger “stands as an experiment” in drawing out connections “between my ‘life’ and my ‘ideas,’ in so far as these are ever separable.” (63)  The term “experiment” is apt.  Hall’s writings have always been distinguished by their openness, a willingness to rethink positions that may be strongly held but understood at some level to be provisional, open to debate and revision.   As a cultural theorist, he has written and spoken extensively about formations of both personal and collective identities.  Identities are plural, a means of becoming; an assemblage of identifications mobilized in order to navigate the social world; a journey to find “ourselves” with a point of arrival that is never reached.  The book wonderfully captures the fluidity of Hall’s journey of self-understanding.  By 1964 Hall has not yet come to think of himself as diasporic, his deferred point of arrival.  As he explains, the diasporic resists “identity,” signaling a condition where identities are not intact, whole, or unchanged.  It is from this perspective that Hall is able to unearth meanings “which I was unable to articulate as a younger man,” about his “relocation” from Jamaica to England. (145)

  As a bright, middle-class lad, attending an elite secondary school, Hall knew the “motherland” long before he arrived in the port of Avonmouth in 1951.  In Jamaica he was introduced to the metropole on the colonizer’s terms.  As in such schools throughout the British Caribbean, the curriculum of Jamaica College was thoroughly English.  His private reading included Austen, Scott, Thackeray, Trollope, Hardy, and plenty of Dickens.  One is reminded of C. L. R. James, in Beyond a Boundary (1963), every year rereading Vanity Fair.  Steeped as he was in British literature, Hall was not particularly receptive to Oxford’s first-year curriculum in English language, with its emphasis on Latin, Norse, Old and Middle English.  He had in fact already developed a modernist sensibility, feeling that modern poetry, art, and jazz (he played jazz piano) opened the way into the modern world.  As he later commented, “Miles Davis had put his finger on my soul.” (129)  Seeking refuge from the oppressive routines of Anglo-Saxon translation, Hall was introduced by US friends to American literature.  Starting his studies as a graduate student, he wanted to write about American social realism.  His advisers warned him off the likes of Dreiser and Steinbeck, authors who were alive and short on literary value.  In what seems a counter-intuitive decision, he settled on Henry James, an honorary member of the English canon.  Hall gives a compelling account of his investment in James, as an author able to see the corruption hidden beneath the veneers of elite sophistication and good taste.  In exploring the finely tuned distinctions between American and European civilization, James “took the question of cultural and social difference … and made it the basis of his ethical judgements.” (217)   Hall never finished his doctoral dissertation; having moved to London, another world opened.

How do we acquire a sense of belonging; how do we say where we are from?  Hall explains that he could never get a proper feel for the deep structure of “Englishness,” what Raymond Williams termed “the structure of feeling,” an instinctive feel for the pulse behind the literary text or society’s taken-for-granted cultural assumptions.  “Indeed,” Hall observes, “I feel less English now than when I first arrived.” (210)  His arrival three years after the Empire Windrush docked in June 1948, carrying 500 Caribbean migrants, coincided with a new era in which colonial currents reversed course and large numbers of colonial subjects returned “home.”  The generation of Caribbean modernist writers, including George Lamming, Sam Selvon, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite, provide cultural touchstones.  Hall quickly became active in the Oxford West Indian Society.  London and Oxford were staging posts for his transition “to becoming West Indian;” he quotes Lamming, from The Pleasures of Exile (1960), “‘most West Indians of my generation were born in England.’” (167)   Elsewhere, Hall has discussed his relationship as a “familiar stranger.”  He returned for visits but had not lived through the changes that effected Jamaican society, such as the rise of black consciousness and Rastafarianism.  He reflects that as migration has been “the world-historical event of late modernity, the classic post-modern experience turns out to be the diasporic experience;” the displaced self has become paradigmatic. (Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 1996, p. 490).  Yet, an emotional intimacy with Jamaica remained, later when he was too ill to travel memories of places, landscapes, and tastes endured.    

Ironically, Hall became very much part of Britain’s political and cultural landscape, particularly the landscape of the Left, not only speaking at rallies and meetings and writing in journals and for the press, but regularly appearing on radio and television, including broadcasts of his Open University lectures.  If 1938 functioned as his symbolic political birthdate, 1956 marked Hall’s political coming of age.  The New Left emerged from the “conjuncture” of 1956: the twin shocks of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution and the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone.   As Hall explains, at the time it seemed possible to create space for a popular socialist initiative, situated outside traditional parties, inspired by anti-colonialist struggles, and advancing a positive neutralism in the face of the Cold War’s bi-polar stand-off.  Unlike older comrades who migrated from the British Communist Party, Hall was part of a younger group of Oxford New-Left socialists.  Along with Raphael Samuel, Gabriel Pearson, and Charles Taylor, he founded and edited Universities and Left Review, which merged in 1960 with The New Reasoner, edited by E. P. Thompson, to form New Left Review.  From 1956 until he moved to Birmingham in 1964, Hall’s life was consumed by political activity, editing ULR and then NLR (he became the journal’s first editor) as well as traveling the country speaking at meetings for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  He first met Catherine Barrett at the 1962 Aldermaston march to “ban the bomb.” 

For Hall the move to cultural studies was made from the New Left, from a creative questioning of Marxism.  Debate over culture defined as ordinary ways of life, particularly working-class culture, was on the agenda, initially sparked by the work of Richard Hoggart and Williams.  Hall’s article, “A Sense of Classlessness” (ULR, autumn 1958), in which he sought to identify the particularities of “the post-war composition of class,” questioned Williams’s understanding of working-class culture as a “whole way of life,” arguing that the advance of consumer capitalism fractured “traditional” norms and modes of collective solidarity.  His analysis drew heavy fired from both Thompson and Samuel, prompting Hall to reflect, “it could be said that I entered Left politics as a born revisionist.” (236)  Hall goes on to note a certain continuity in his position, not in terms of exactly what he wrote, but in terms of what he later elaborated as the primacy of “conjectural analysis,” referring to the balance of historical forces and overdetermined contradictions (“the centrality of displacement and disequilibrium”) at a particular moment as expressed in a prevailing ideological constellation. (237)  Antonio Gramsci’s writings were unavailable to British socialists in the late 1950s, but the way was prepared for appropriating concepts that became central to Hall’s later critical thought and practical politics.  Indeed, as Hall maintains, there are similarities between the positions developed in his early articles – “A Sense of Classlessness” and “The New Conservatism and the Old” (1957) – and “The Great Moving Right Show” (1979), his brilliant analysis of Thatcherism.  Perhaps the most striking difference is the absence of “race” and immigration in his earlier evaluations of popular attitudes and right-wing political mobilization.  “Race” was only beginning to come into political focus as a “problem.”  Tellingly, “A Sense of Classlessness” appears in the same issue of ULR featuring a selection of essays written by fifteen-year-old girls at a secondary school in West London following the Notting Hill riots that convey an unvarnished racism of the sort that he and Catherine regularly encountered as a mixed-race couple in Birmingham.  Hall makes clear the influence that his wife and her family have had on his life.  In the end, one feels more might be said about emerging questions of gender and sexuality, issues that were to be raised so forcefully by feminist cultural theorists at the CCCS.

Hall, with Schwarz’s assistance, has delivered a work of richness and depth that stands as worthy testament to his life and ideas.  A review of this length can only suggest the myriad of themes and the intellectual energy that distinguish Familiar Stranger.  Perhaps Hall should here have the last word: “I never came to be seduced by the old imperial metropole … I wanted to change British society, not adopt it.  This commitment enabled me not to have to live my life as a disappointed suitor, or as a disgruntled stranger.” (271)

– James Epstein, Vanderbilt University



Stuart Hall, with Bill Schwarz. Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands was published by Duke University Press in 2017.