February 6, 1905
May 6, 1965
The Afro-Jamaican woman Una Marson was born in 1905 to a Baptist minister and his wife in rural Jamaica. She was one of the most important contributors to Anglophone Caribbean literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Her literary output includes four books of poetry and at least three plays, including At What a Price? (1932), the first play with a black cast and director produced in London's West End, and her last play, Pocomania, which was heralded by Joan Grant as the "birth of Jamaican national drama" in 1938. Marson played a decisive role in the establishment of Jamaican national literature. As the editor of Cosmopolitan from 1928 to 1931 she promoted local writers such as Archie Lindo, and she led various organizations to promote Jamaican literature, including the Readers and Writers Club (1937) and the Pioneer Press (1949). During the Second World War, Marson helped institutionalize Caribbean culture and literature through the BBC program Caribbean Voices (1943–1958). This program may have been Marson's most significant contribution as it provided a broad range of writers—including the West Indian novelist George Lamming (b. 1927) and the Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul ((b. 1932)—their first large audience and financial support.
Marson saw establishing a Jamaican national literature as part of a larger political goal to promote the status of the people of Africa and its diaspora. She began her career in social and political work with the Jamaican Salvation Army and YMCA after graduating from Hampton High School in 1922. She was one of the founding members of the Jamaica Stenographers Association in 1928 and editor of its monthly journal, The Cosmopolitan. She also founded the Jamaican Save the Children Fund (1938). Marson continued her political and social activism in London, where she lived from 1932 to 1936 and from 1938 to 1946. In 1933 and 1934, she worked for the League of Coloured Peoples, and in 1935 and 1936 she served as secretary for the Abyssinian Minister in London and for Haile Selassie when he Addressed the League of Nations. Marson also became a prominent speaker for women's organizations in England, focusing on the need to improve the economic and social status of women in the Caribbean and Africa. She continued her social and political work until her death in 1965.
Despite her importance to the development of Anglophone Caribbean literature, Marson's contribution has only come to light since the mid-1980s, when feminist scholars began to study her life and work. Her writings remain largely out of print and inaccessible. Her obscurity results in part from the incompatibility of Marson's feminism with the male-dominated discourses of Pan-Africanism and Jamaican nationalism. Marson's obscurity may also be a result of her historical position as a transitional figure. Her political and aesthetic vision emerged in the 1920s, a time when leading intellectuals believed that Jamaica would progress to modernity through respectability and loyalty to the British Empire. She matured during the 1930s and 1940s, when labor rebellions and political nationalism transformed the Anglophone Caribbean, leading to the anticolonial politics and literature of the 1950s.
Feminist scholars have sought to reestablish Marson's critical reputation by emphasizing her critique of Jamaica's middle-class patriarchy. For example, her parodic poems in Tropic Reveries (1930) question the necessity of marriage, while At What a Price? employs a marriage plot to assert women's right to sexual experience and social standing. Her later work combines her feminist concerns with her growing investment in Pan-African politics and African diaspora aesthetics. Marson's third collection of poetry, The Moth and the Star (1937), echoes the work of the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes in its use of vernacular language and working-class personae, foreshadowing much Caribbean writing of the 1950s. However, unlike many writers of the 1950s, Marson focused on the implications of nationalism for women. In so doing, she revealed that Jamaican nationalism excluded both the working classes and middle-class women from the freedom and status it promised.
French, Joan, and Honor Ford-Smith. Women, Work and Organization in Jamaica, 1900–1944. Kingston, Jamaica: Sistren Research, 1986. A book-length manuscript held at the University of West Indies Library, Mona, Jamaica.
Grant, Joan. The Daily Gleaner (January 6, 1938): 5.
Jarrett-Macaulay, Delia. The Life of Una Marson, 1905–1965. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Smilowitz, Erika. "Marson, Rhys, and Mansfield." Ph.D. diss., University of New Mexico, 1984.
leah reade rosenberg (2005)