Roundtable: Academic Book Week: Alternative Entries To Familiar Topics

When I consider the non-early-American history books that have had the greatest impact on the way I think, two stand out in particular. One is Ross McKibbin’s The Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-1924; the other, CLR James’s Beyond A Boundary. The former is the most obviously “academic” of the two; the opportunity to write a Junto post primarily concerned with cricket, however, means that today I’ll focus on the latter.[1]

Both books influenced me for their creativity in approaching politics and society. McKibbin’s insight that “political action is the result of social and cultural attitudes which are not primarily political” has remained with me ever since; a useful reminder that in writing political history, we have to try and find ways of recovering political mindsets not only by looking at what political actors say, but also the many and varied ways they actually do things. James, too, calls for an approach to studying the past that looks beyond a narrow scope of inquiry, in his famous question ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’

For an undergraduate who was known to turn up at tutorials in full cricket whites, and later a graduate student whose summer days were (possibly disproportionately) spent in Oxfordshire cricket fields, this was a provocative question.[2] But James’s imaginative landscape, which linked imperialism, literature, cricket, socialism, and artistic critique, opened my eyes to the breadth of ways in which one could interrogate the political life of a community.

To this day, I still act in considerations of the insights I gained reading the book. The extent to which any writer is shaped by his or her cultural context came across especially powerfully in James’s recollection of his attachment to the old school-tie, and his realization that his reaction to a sports betting scandal in the U.S. was fundamentally shaped by his educational heritage. When James reflected on the aspirational, social reasons for his joining one Trinidadian club at the expense of another (which would have benefited his sporting talents more), he made me aware of the unconscious assumptions that underlie and shape individual agency.

James skillfully writes about such considerations in a number of contexts—the Trinidad of his youth, working-class England in the 1930s, and later a decolonizing Caribbean—deftly and evocatively using cricket as the entry point for examination of social attitudes. James thus provides models for, among other things, considering the role of crowds, the deep significance of seemingly symbolic actions.

Perhaps the most intriguing argument James advances is that regarding WG Grace. Lamenting that no historian of Victorian Britain accounts for cricket in their narrative, James notes Grace to be “the best-known Englishman of his time,” and announces “I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace.” What an eye-opening statement for an undergraduate about to embark on a course on Victorian Britain! What a challenge to a young man whose life was engrossed by playing and watching sports, but who often reflected little on the significance of the cultural context in which these sports were played!

James’s argument—that Grace, as the single-handed cricketer who allowed the Gentlemen (amateurs) to triumph against the Players (professionals) in their annual contests, thus also single-handedly helped prop up the British class system—is far-fetched, obtuse, and would certainly not stand up to deeper historical investigation. But as a starting point for discussion, it is wonderfully provocative—demonstrating how all histories are founded on moral and philosophical judgments, and that new insights come primarily from finding alternative ways of understanding and reading societies.

As I write this blog post, I’m in the middle of teaching a class on sports and U.S. history for the first time. One of my main goals in teaching this class is to use sports as a means of get my students to think more closely about matters of class, power, race, gender, and community identity. The rationale being that these are complicated and intricate subjects, and thus perhaps best approached from an entry point that is deceptively familiar, and that lends itself to enthusiasm.

As I do this, I’m consciously reminded of Beyond A Boundary. There is no doubt that cricket occupies a special place in James’s heart (as, indeed, it does in mine). But, as enriching and absorbing as the game is, it remains worth reflecting on that original question—what do they know of cricket, that only cricket know? In showing how a sport can open up lines of political, social, and historical inquiry, James opened my eyes to the possibility of writing history.


[1] Thanks to Tom for yesterday’s excellent discussion of what constitutes an academic book—I wondered if my choice of Beyond A Boundary was a little frivolous, but I’m happy to celebrate books that treat their topic with seriousness and rigor.

[2] I once turned up to a tutorial in cricket gear not in anticipation of a game yet to come, but a game already in progress, to which I would return. I’d like to say this demonstrates my commitment to academic work, but I must confess my contributions to discussion that week were considerably more cursory than usual. Sorry, Dr Andreyev!

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  1. Pingback: Roundtable: Academic Book Week—On Trade/Craft « The Junto


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