Why you should know Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. Even if you've never heard of him.

By the time Claude McKay died in Chicago at 58, he had been homeless for a time, and penniless longer. He had been on the decline for a decade, physically, financially and culturally. He had been close with artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden and others...

Why you should know Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. Even if you've never heard of him.

By the time Claude McKay died in Chicago at 58, he had been homeless for a time, and penniless longer. He had been on the decline for a decade, physically, financially and culturally. He had been close with artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden and others instrumental in the 1935 founding of the Harlem Artists' Guild, but his own attempts at organizing a Negro Author's Guild were a bust. He had a stroke. He doubted his relevancy as a writer. He was a mess. His friend Ellen Tarry, later known as the first African-American picture book author, found him in a New York boarding house in 1942, destitute and ill. She connected him with Catholic groups, and for a time, his spiritual life flourished. Though when he moved to Chicago soon after to teach for the Catholic Youth Organization, he was too weak to carry his belongings and left everything behind.

His career was pretty short. And not entirely complete.

"Amiable With Big Teeth," his first novel since 1940, was published posthumously last week. You should know Claude McKay. Even if you never have heard of him. He was, in a precursory way, the future of American literature, an immigrant who wrestled with ideas of home and, specifically, the best way to represent the totality of African-American life.

'Amiable with Big Teeth' Claude McKay

"Amiable with Big Teeth," by Claude McKay.

"Amiable with Big Teeth," by Claude McKay.

(Claude McKay)

When he died of heart failure in 1948, his literary reputation was in a deep flux. Celebrated (and criticized) for his sense of everyday realism and understanding of the variety in black communities, his place as a Harlem Renaissance touchstone was firm; his poem "If We Must Die" ("Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!") was on its way to transcending the African-American experience and speaking to resistance movements worldwide. But "Home To Harlem," his signature work, considered the first best-selling novel by a black writer, had been published 20 years earlier. And McKay, in general, had not published in years.

His obituary in this newspaper was one paragraph long, only a handful of lines: He lived near Washington Park, he wrote a little, he died. That's about it. His obituary wasn't even the primary obituary that day in the Tribune: McKay was beaten out by a suburban businessman who had once patented an early forerunner to the air brake used on trains.

Then again, American culture has never been good about making room for more than one black writer at a time. By 1948, in Chicago alone, McKay had been eclipsed by Richard Wright's "Native Son," then by the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, who would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Within a few years of that, James Baldwin would publish his first novel ("Go Tell It on the Mountain") and Ralph Ellison would release "Invisible Man."

McKay's own work would eventually come to represent a key example of "the intersection between modernism and the Harlem Renaissance," said Kenneth Warren, who teaches African-American literature at the University of Chicago. "For anyone who wants to understand American modernism, if you want to know what was going on at a moment in the early 20th century that produces writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, you also have to understand McKay's books. And yet, when you look back at the writers who found the period influential, you don't hear how reading 'Home to Harlem' was a watershed — Alice Walker might name-check someone like Zora Neal Hurston, but you still never hear anyone claim how their crucial moment was reading Claude McKay."

After his death, McKay's reputation grew more obscure with time. To the point where, many decades later, when McKay's estate was scattered and what royalties existed found their way to his distant relatives, several of them had never heard of him, either.

And that, apparently, was that.

But like many writers, McKay had work that stalled and remained stalled, novels never finished that languished in desk drawers. In fact, he had burned his first attempt at a novel. Perhaps because he published in his native Jamaica before moving to New York in the 1920s, there was some confusion about the full scope of his output: in that Tribune obituary, his third book, "Spring in New Hampshire," was noted as his first, and no mention was made of "Home to Harlem," never mind anything unfinished. While in Chicago, he was asked by a university in Georgia to contribute his papers and he replied that all he had were letters and one unpublished novel, which was his only copy.

It's unclear which book McKay referenced, but possibly it was the novel that Jean-Christophe Cloutier stumbled across in a stack of papers in 2009. That novel, "Amiable With Big Teeth," was written in 1941, a couple of years before McKay moved to Chicago. It's political satire, the story of activists in 1930s Harlem rallying to support Ethiopia, which was invaded in 1935 by the fascist forces of Italy's Benito Mussolini, a major concern at a moment when much of the black population on the planet still lived under forms of colonial rule.


In the past couple of decades, though McKay has become something of a fixture of African-American studies scholarship, "Amiable With Big Teeth" had been completely unknown. "You don't find yourself looking for something that doesn't exist," said Cloutier, an assistant English professor at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time of the discovery, Cloutier was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City. He was in the school's rare book and manuscript library, flipping through the archives of Samuel Roth, a notorious literary legend whose unauthorized publishing of "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" later led to Supreme Court rulings that freed Americans to read what they liked, no matter how unsavory. It's still unclear why Roth had the novel.

Cloutier, who had done research on McKay, didn't recall any mention of the novel. So he brought the manuscript to Brent Hayes Edwards, his adviser at Columbia, a well-regarded expert on Harlem Renaissance literature: "Part of me half-expected him to say, 'Oh yeah, everybody knows about that book.'" But Edwards didn't know the work, either.

But if it was real, so was the significance.

"McKay might not feel contemporary like a Colson Whitehead," Edwards said, "but he has resonance. Here's a guy who is Jamaican, writing in the early 20th century about self-determination for the Caribbean, yet leaves Jamaica in his teens, never goes back. McKay was a migrant writer." Stylistically, he doesn't read like a Jhumpa Lahiri. "Amiable," in particular, can be earnest in a way that reveals its 80-year vanishing act. But thematically, McKay's book isn't so far from most contemporary immigrant literature.

Not to mention, "Amiable with Big Teeth," unlike many late-discovered works by important authors, was found intact, and finished. It just wasn't published. So Edwards and Cloutier spent years learning why — and more importantly, if it was a real McKay.

They scoured archives, used handwriting experts, worked with the New York librarian who had handled what was left of his estate. Cloutier said they never did learn why the book disappeared, but they found correspondence between McKay and others that mentioned "Amiable." (Among those were labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who organized the train porters in Pullman; he wrote back that McKay's "ideas on the Negro liberation movement flash out like a diamond on the sands.") They also learned that the book had been written for E.P. Dutton (now an imprint of Penguin, which published "Amiable With Big Teeth" this month). But it was rejected, and then, never mentioned.

Most likely it fell to the wayside as McKay's health declined in Chicago. But the novel was a real McKay, Edwards said: "Having been uprooted and thrown into global currents throughout his life, his marks were clear." Streetwise characters, labor politics, Harlem. "I couldn't come up with anyone who could have written this, and in quite this way."

Cloutier describes McKay as a "transnational literary figure," a forerunner to Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz, American authors from other countries whose ancestors never stray far from the surface, the contrasts between cultures and beliefs intimately linked in their works. Indeed, what McKay left behind is a laundry list of contrasts: Of his first books of poetry, published initially in Jamaica, the first centered on the bucolic life of the rural peasant and second was about the hardships of urban living. Though he became a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay spent its seminal years living abroad. He was as well-known as a poet as he was an author of prose; "America," one of his most cited poems, is a love-hate for his new home ("I love this cultured hell that tests my youth").

In 1922, McKay addressed the National Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow; when he moved back to New York in 1934, his agent was Maxim Lieber, later revealed to be part of the Soviet espionage ring that included Whittaker Chambers. And yet: "Amiable" is rooted in a bitter skepticism of communism, making it in some ways a fictional extension of his 1940 nonfiction "Harlem: Negro Metropolis," in which McKay calls out communists as merely interested in black Americans as propaganda tools.

Even "Home to Harlem," his one genuine classic, is focused on two protagonists, a returning soldier who finds solace with a former prostitute, and a writer whose pain over racism he experiences in the United States pushes him to immigrate to Haiti. McKay doesn't linger on circumstance, but rather, character, good and bad. W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American scholar and writer, said the book made him "feel like taking a bath."

He wanted a little uplift, some core depiction of an ideal black American life that McKay resisted showing. But Warren sees the book as not so different from Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," a modernist novel that — in keeping with a basic characteristic of American modernism — "gives itself the task of writing in a new way, one adequate to a changing American society, of writing at a moment when you aren't assured any more of the earlier literary models, the ones that writers had always been told they ought to follow."

And yet, Warren said, McKay doesn't stand out quite as much as a Hemingway: He has all the ambition and limitations of the period — sentimentalism, valuing male characters by their toughness — but none of the writerly innovations we associate with modernism.

So McKay seems destined to remain underrated. Unless there's more McKay out there.

"I was always surprised that he seemed to have stopped writing fiction," Edwards said. "Why wouldn't he have at least tried while he lived in Chicago? He was there for years. We've stopped short of calling ('Amiable') the last McKay novel, because we don't know, do we? Maybe someone out there has the hidden Chicago novel! And I'm not even joking."



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