Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Festus Claudius McKay was born in 1889 on a small farm in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. His parents were well-respected members of the community and of the local Baptist church. He received his early education from his older brother, a schoolteacher near Montego Bay. In 1907, he was apprenticed to a wheelwright and cabinetmaker in Brown’s Town; this apprenticeship was short-lived, but it was in Brown’s Town that McKay entered into a far more fruitful apprenticeship of another sort. Walter Jekyll, an English aristocrat and student of Jamaican culture, came to know young Claude and undertook the boy’s literary education. As McKay recalled years later in his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, Jekyll opened a whole new world to him:I read poetry: Childe Harold, The Dunciad, Essay on Man, Paradise Lost, the Elizabethan lyrics, Leaves of Grass, the lyrics of Shelley and Keats and of the late Victorian poets, and . . . we read together pieces out of Dante, Leopardi, and Goethe, Villon and Baudelaire.
It was Jekyll who first recognized and nurtured McKay’s gift for writing poetry, and who encouraged him to put that gift to work in the service of his own Jamaican dialect. The result was the publication of Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. The first is a celebration of peasant life, somewhat after the manner of Robert Burns; Constab Ballads is more like Rudyard Kipling, drawing as it does on McKay’s brief stint as a constable in Kingston, Jamaica.
Kingston gave McKay his first taste of city life and his first real taste of racism. The contempt of the city’s white and mulatto upper classes for rural and lower-class blacks was an unpleasant revelation. The most blatant racism that McKay witnessed in Kingston, however, was not Jamaican in origin—it was imported in the form of American tourists. He would come to know this brand of racism much more intimately in the next few years, for, after only eight months in the Kingston constabulary, he resigned his post and left for the United States. In 1912, he enrolled, first at Tuskegee Institute, then at Kansas State College, to study agronomy. His plan was to return to Jamaica to help modernize the island’s agriculture. The plan might have succeeded but for a gift of several thousand dollars from an unidentified patron—most likely Walter Jekyll—that paid McKay’s way to New York, where he invested his money in a restaurant and married Eulalie Imelda Edwards, an old Jamaican sweetheart. Neither marriage nor restaurant survived long, but McKay found a certain consolation in the bustle and energy of the city. One part of town in particular seemed to reach out to him: Harlem.
In the next five years or so he worked at a variety of jobs—bar boy, longshoreman, fireman, and finally porter, then waiter, on the Pennsylvania Railroad. This was yet another apprenticeship, one in which he further developed the sympathy for the working class that remained with him all his life. Since his youth he had leaned politically toward socialism, and his years among the proletariat solidified his beliefs. His race consciousness developed hand-in-hand with his class consciousness. During this period of apprenticeship and developing awareness, he wrote. In 1918, he began a long association with Max Eastman, editor of the Communist magazine, The Liberator. McKay began publishing poems and essays in this revolutionary journal, and eventually became an associate editor. In 1919, in response to that year’s bloody postwar race riots, McKay published in The Liberator what would become his most famous poem, “If We Must Die.” The defiant tone and the open outrage of the poem caught the attention of the black community, and practically overnight, McKay was at the forefront of black American poets.
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Claude McKay was the youngest of eleven children in a rural Jamaican family. His parents instilled pride in an African heritage in their children. McKay’s brother Uriah Theophilus and the English folklorist and linguist Walter Jekyll introduced McKay to philosophy and literature, notably to English poetry.
When he was nineteen McKay moved to Kingston and worked as a constable for almost a year. Encouraged by Jekyll, McKay published two volumes of poetry in Jamaican dialect in 1912, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. The first collection echoes McKay’s love for the natural beauty of Jamaica while the second reflects his disenchantment with urban life in Kingston.
In 1912 McKay left Jamaica for the United States and studied at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and at Kansas State College before moving to Harlem in 1914. His most famous poem, “If We Must Die,” was published in 1919 and proved to be a harbinger of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem depicts violence as a dignified response to racial oppression.
Soon thereafter McKay published two other volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems and Harlem Shadows, which portray the homesickness and racism that troubled McKay in the United States. Some of McKay’s poems were anthologized in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925), the bible of the Harlem Renaissance.
McKay also spent time in Europe and North Africa. In the Soviet Union in 1922 and 1923, he was lauded as a champion of the Communist movement and published a poem in Pravda. While in France in the 1920’s, McKay preferred Marseilles over the white expatriate community in Paris.
McKay wrote three sociological novels about the attempts of black people to assimilate as outsiders in various places around the world: Home to Harlem is set in Harlem, Banjo in Marseilles, and Banana Bottom in Britain and Jamaica. The seamy realism of black urban life depicted in the first novel did not appeal to African American thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who preferred more uplifting and optimistic black art.
McKay continued to examine the place of black people in Western culture in his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, and in some of his posthumously published Selected Poems of Claude McKay. His conversion to Catholicism in his final years was the last step in his search for aesthetic, racial, and spiritual identity.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Festus Claudius McKay was born to Hannah Ann Elizabeth McKay (née Edwards) and Thomas McKay, peasant farmers and landowners of Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. He was educated by his schoolteacher brother, Uriah Theodore, studying, among other things, British and classical literature. Encouraged in his early attempts to write poetry, by 1912 McKay had published two volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. They were written in the dialect of Jamaica’s folk culture and were based on peasant life and his experiences working for a brief time in 1911 as a policeman.
In 1912, McKay went to the United States to attend college, starting at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama but transferring to Kansas State College. After a year in Kansas, however, he dropped out and went to New York City, where he worked at various jobs, including that of railroad dining-car waiter. He married his childhood sweetheart, Imelda Lewars, in 1914, but she returned to Jamaica to have their daughter, who was named Ruth Hope, and McKay reportedly never saw his daughter. He and his wife divorced after only about a year of marriage.
He continued to write poetry, sometimes using the pseudonym Eli Edwards. He was also becoming more seriously involved with radical political and literary figures such as Hubert H. Harrison and Cyril V. Briggs, two West Indian writers with socialist and communist leanings, and Max and Crystal Eastman, siblings who were prominent in socialist activities....
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Born to Thomas Francis and Ann Elizabeth Edwards McKay in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, Festus Claudius McKay was the eleventh and youngest child of a family proud of its Ashanti ancestry. Although his parents, native Jamaicans, were peasants, they revered their West African heritage and imbued their children with racial pride.
McKay’s brother, Uriah Theophilus McKay, taught in an elementary school and had a good personal library. An educated Englishman, Walter Jekyll, had come to Jamaica to collect folktales, and, meeting the adolescent McKay, he gave him the run of his substantial library. Claude McKay learned the world by reading in both libraries. By the time he was seventeen, he was studying cabinetmaking, but he soon left this work; at nineteen he was a constable in Kingston.
McKay’s parents taught the boy early to distrust white people. McKay knew no racial discrimination during his childhood in Sunny Ville, where blacks were in the majority. In Kingston, however, he first became aware of racial prejudice. Having learned from his father to respect the purity of his race, he looked down on people of color who had mixed blood—despite his mother’s probably being a mulatto.
McKay’s brother exposed him to agnosticism and philosophy; Jekyll exposed him to literature. McKay read extensively in the Romantic poets as well as in classical writers. Jekyll, who was translating the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, infused McKay with an enthusiasm for Schopenhauer’s philosophy. In 1912, Jekyll, who encouraged McKay in his writing, arranged to have his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, published in Great Britain, and later the same year, Constab Ballads appeared. These two collections, consisting largely of work in McKay’s favorite poetic form, sonnets, showed two sides of Claude McKay....
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