Home to Harlem Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

Claude McKay

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

The initial critical reception of Home to Harlem was extraordinary. The novel was praised by white critics and condemned by black ones. Most reviewers admired the easy, unforced conversation of the characters, the careful reproduction of the argot and pronunciation of Harlem residents (whether West Indian, African, or American), and the stark and at times revealing presentation of the rigors and terrors of life in the Black Belt. In fact, such was the praise for the novel that it was awarded the medal of the Institute of Arts and Sciences. (The detailed descriptions of Harlem life, people, and places are the more noteworthy when it is recalled that McKay had left the United States in 1922, six years before publication of the book. Distance had not diminished his impressions and had perhaps even sharpened his critical faculties.)

Many critics commented on the novel’s social realism, though McKay himself chose to emphasize that his aim was emotional realism—the difference being one of focus on people’s feelings rather than on their circumstances. It was this emphasis on emotions (involving, inevitably, sexuality, extramarital relationships, frenetic dancing, drinking, gambling, and similar activities), this romanticizing of blacks who were essentially social outcasts in New York, that accounted for the criticism of the black press.

At one gambling game, Jake is accosted by a “hideous mulattress” who has purple streaks on her...

(The entire section is 559 words.)