Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

In the 1920’s, Claude McKay was considered one of the titans of the Harlem Renaissance. In his introduction to McKay’s Harlem Shadows (1922), Max Eastman rather surprisingly called the volume “the first significant” poetic work by a black. Five years later, even though black critics including W. E. B. Du Bois were offended by its depiction of African Americans, McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) was immensely popular. White critics, at least, praised it for its realism. McKay’s second novel, Banjo (1929), which described the adventures of a group of black seamen beached by choice in Marseilles, was financially successful, although still annoying to many black critics.

By 1933, when McKay’s last novel, Banana Bottom, was published, the Great Depression had hit. Through no fault of the writer or the work itself, the book was a financial failure. Although McKay eventually found funding to bring out his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), Banana Bottom was the last of his creative works. Ironically, many critics now believe that it is also his best.

It is true that those who continue to interpret McKay’s novels as unthinking glorifications of primitivism tend either to focus on his poetry or to dismiss him altogether as a writer whose significance is purely historical. Recent studies, such as those by Wayne F. Cooper and Tyrone Tillery, have revealed subtleties in McKay’s fiction that had been overlooked. It is now increasingly thought that Claude McKay’s fiction may well surpass his poetry and that Banana Bottom, the finest of his three novels, is alone worthy to ensure his high standing among African American writers.