T is for Claude Thompson (1907-1976)

The poet and short story writer, Claude Thompson, was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, on January 2, 1907, and attended Wolmer’s School in Kingston. Although his work is little known today, he was a part of Jamaica’s burgeoning literary scene in the period of the 1930s and 40s. This period has been described by Raphael Dalleo as a time when “Jamaica’s literature also came into its own” (57). There were poems and stories by various local writers appearing in the major daily publications, such as The Gleaner and the Public Opinion. Claude Thompson was one of these writers.

In his appendix of the stories, poetry, and plays that were published in Public Opinion between 1937 and 1944, Dalleo lists several poems by Claude Thompson (71). The first of Thompson’s poems appear in Public Opinion on March 26, 1938, when he publishes the poem “We Make Mistakes.” This is followed by a series of further poems published in April, June, July, August, September and in January 1939. His overall contribution of 9 of the 27 poems published in Public Opinion in 1938 renders Thompson as one of the most sustained poetry contributors in that year (Dalleo, 63). Locating these poems in relation to 1938 also positions Thompson as one of the writers publishing literary work during a period of major political awakening in Jamaica. The May 1938 labour unrests in Jamaica would change the island’s political and cultural landscape. The writer Vic Reid would describe that year as the beginning of a “cultural revolution.”

While the question of how the political urgencies of the time might have impacted his poetry is one that has not been critically explored, Thompson’s short fiction, for which he is better known, reflected the nationalist consciousness and sensibilities that characterized Jamaican writing of the period. After 1938, Thompson seems to have turned from poetry to prose. Between 1939 and 1943, Thompson published short stories in The Gleaner and in Public Opinion. His work also appeared in the first issue of Focus magazine edited by Edna Manley in 1943. In that year, a volume of his stories titled These My People (1943), was also published in Kingston. This volume included some of his previously published short fiction and also included illustrations by Albert Huie, one of the leading local visual artists. The inclusion of Huie’s lino and wood cuts, highlight how the vibrant dialogue between Caribbean literary and visual artists, which continues today, has long been part of the region’s literary heritage. (One of Huie’s paintings was also used for the cover of W. G. Ogilvie’s Cactus Village, and, as mentioned in the entry on Vera Bell, he designed the set for her play ‘Soliday and the Wicked Bird’.)

We can note in Thompson’s short stories several themes that connect his writing to his contemporaries. The opening and closing stories of These My People are explicitly political, even anti-colonial, in their focus on the question and concept of liberty. The opening story, “A Man From Jamaica,” takes Simon Bolivar’s exile in Jamaica while on his way to Haiti in 1815 as its narrative point of departure, while the closing piece “One Way Ticket” focuses on George William Gordon and the 1865 Morant Bay Uprising. Thompson’s writing of Gordon and the 1865 Jamaican uprising places him in conversation with writers such as Vic Reid (New Day, Sixty-Five) and Roger Mais (George William Gordon) whose writings about 1865 and George William Gordon respectively have been more widely examined. The form of Thompson’s “One Way Ticket” is experimental, using direct quotation marks throughout (perhaps drawing on archival accounts). In its formal layout on the page, it leans more towards poetry than prose, perhaps also signalling an orality to the piece.

Other stories such as “Spring has come to the city,” “Another Spring,” and “The Wail” demonstrate a preoccupation with writing Caribbean landscapes (even while drawing on the vocabulary of European seasons). But these stories also demonstrate an attention to writing different kinds of locations. “Another Spring” narrates the world of the rural Jamaican folk beginning with “The earthy smell of the butt’ry” (9) while “Spring has come to the city” narrates the urban Jamaican folk, no less rooted, in Thompson’s rendering, in a sense of place. The story closes with the following sentences in reference to the main character Naomi, a working-class woman whom the narrator tells us had “gone to nothing” since taking wilful leave of her previous employer: “Spring has come to Naomi…she is picking up. The earth is Naomi and Naomi is the earth—big and black and fecund” (8).

Thompson here replays the gendered trope of writing woman as land. The figure of Naomi also recalls the biblical narrative of Ruth and Naomi. His story further relies on the Biblical resonances of Spring and Easter to incorporate themes of resurrection in which Naomi comes to be invested with the future possibilities of the nation. While Suzanne Scafe remarks on Thompson’s willingness to incorporate the “class divide” as an explicit theme in his work, “thus reducing the reliance on an anthropological gaze,” a romanticization of the land and of the working class is nonetheless evident here (2020).

Several of Thomspon’s stories arguably also offer more of a sense of place than character. This is certainly not a failure, but rather a notable literary style. While landscape is etched in crisp detail, characters are often illustrative. In this regard we might note Scafe’s assertion that “His style, reminiscent of his American contemporary Jean Toomer, is at once modernist, experimental, and romantic: his prose shines a light into the dark corners of rural life, revealing characters who are both ordinary—seemingly ‘real’—and exotic” (2010, 68).

In 1962, Thompson’s story “Spring Planting” (first published in Focus 1948) was included in The Independence Anthology of Jamaican Literature edited by A.L. Hendricks and Archie Lindo. The story also appeared in December 1966, in the African-American magazine, Negro Digest. His accompanying bio listed him as residing in London, England. Thompson’s name is not usually included among the list of writers of the Windrush generation, perhaps because he didn’t find the same success in the literary metropole of London as others of that time. However, a return to his work potentially opens up other avenues for rethinking Caribbean literary historiographies of the early and mid-twentieth century.

Ronald Cummings

More about the author

Hyacinth M. Simpson’s article, “The Jamaican Short Story: Oral and Related Influences,” is available to read.

The cover of Thompson’s 1943 volume These My People

University of the West Indies-Mona offers access to some issues of Public Opinion.

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