Harlem Renaissance Novel by Claude McKay Is Discovered
By Felicia R. Lee
A Columbia graduate student and his adviser have authenticated the student’s discovery of an unknown manuscript of a 1941 novel by Claude McKay, a leading Harlem Renaissance writer and author of the first novel by a black American to become a best seller.
The manuscript, “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” was discovered in a previously untouched university archive and offers an unusual window on the ideas and events (like Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia) that animated Harlem on the cusp of World War II. The two scholars have received permission from the McKay estate to publish the novel, a satire set in 1936, with an introduction about how it was found and its provenance verified.
McKay, a Jamaican-born writer and political activist who died in 1948, at 58 (though some biographies say 57), influenced a generation of black writers, including Langston Hughes. His work includes the 1919 protest poem “If We Must Die,” (quoted by Winston Churchill) and “Harlem Shadows,” a 1922 poetry collection that some critics say ushered in the Harlem Renaissance. He also wrote the 1928 best-selling novel “Home to Harlem.” But his last published fiction during his lifetime was the 1933 novel “Banana Bottom.”
“This is a major discovery,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard University scholar, who was one of three experts called upon to examine the novel and supporting research. “It dramatically expands the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers and, obviously, novels by Claude McKay.
“More important, because it was written in the second half of the Harlem Renaissance, it shows that the renaissance continued to be vibrant and creative and turned its focus to international issues - in this case the tensions between Communists, on the one hand, and black nationalists, on the other, for the hearts and minds of black Americans,” said Mr. Gates, the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.
This literary detective story began in the summer of 2009, when Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a doctoral candidate in English and comparative literature, was working as an intern in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia. He was going through more than 50 boxes of materials belonging to Samuel Roth, a kind of literary pariah who died in 1974 and is best known for being the appellant in a famous obscenity case in the 1950s.
Mr. Roth is also known for publishing work without permission, including excerpts from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and editions of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” by D. H. Lawrence. Mr. Roth attended Columbia, and his family donated his collection to the university.
No one knew of a connection between Mr. Roth and McKay, Mr. Cloutier said, as he came upon the roughly 300-page double-spaced manuscript, bound between cardboardlike covers bearing the novel’s title and McKay’s name. He also found two letters from McKay to Mr. Roth about possibly ghostwriting a novel to be called “Descent Into Harlem,” about an Italian immigrant who settles in Harlem.
“Amiable” is a different story, though, rife with political intrigue, romance, seedy nightclubs and scenes of black intellectual and artistic life in Harlem during the Great Depression.
Mr. Cloutier quickly took his discovery to Brent Hayes Edwards, his dissertation adviser and an expert in black literature. Mr. Edwards, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, knew that McKay had published three novels during his lifetime (including “Banjo,” in 1929.) A novella, “Harlem Glory: A Fragment Of Aframerican Life,” was published posthumously).
But he and Mr. Cloutier immediately found in “Amiable” themes that recurred across McKay’s work, like Communism and labor strikes in Harlem, and characters, like the real-life labor leader Sufi Abdul Hamid. The term “Aframerican,” which McKay used to refer to black people in the Western Hemisphere, also appeared in “Amiable.”
Mr. Cloutier and Mr. Edwards gathered additional evidence by rummaging through archives at libraries around the country, including at Yale, Indiana University, Emory University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library (which manages the McKay estate).
They ended up amassing a mountain of archival and circumstantial evidence pointing to McKay’s authorship. But it was the extensive correspondence between McKay and his friend Max Eastman, the writer, political activist and avid supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, that ultimately convinced them that “Amiable” was indeed McKay’s, they said.
“The irrefutable archival evidence we have is when Eastman directly quotes from the novel,” Mr. Cloutier said. “McKay sent him pages, all from the summer of 1941 and a bit later.” (They also found letters referring to a contract between McKay and E. P. Dutton to write the novel.)
The authentication of the novel is “scholarly gold,” said William J. Maxwell, the editor of “Complete Poems: Claude McKay.” Its mocking portraits of Communists show McKay’s decisive break with Communism and his effort to turn his political evolution into art, said Mr. Maxwell, a professor of English and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Moreover, while the flowering of arts known as the Harlem Renaissance obsessively documented black life in the 1920s, he said, far less is known about the period of the 1930s, focused on in “Amiable.”
Many scholars believe that the Harlem Renaissance’s creative energy had pretty much run out by the late 1930s. But Mr. Edwards said he believed that “Amiable” would eventually be recognized “as the key political novel of the black intellectual life in New York in the late 1930s.”
McKay represents the Communists as amiable with big teeth, he said, but they end up being a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“I cannot think of another novel that gives us such a rich and multilayered portrayal of black life,” Mr. Edwards continued. “There are scenes with artists in salons, in nightclubs, in queer nightclubs. It has almost a documentary aspect.”
Despite his moment in the spotlight, Mr. Cloutier is still in the middle of his dissertation, which he expects to complete in 2013 or 2014. Its title? “Archival Vagabonds: 20th Century American Fiction and the Archives in Novelistic Practice.” And the McKay manuscript remains where Mr. Cloutier found it, now archived in Box 29, Folders 7 and 8, of the Samuel Roth papers.