Claude McKay Additional Biography


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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....

(The entire section is 614 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207629-Mckay.jpg Claude McKay Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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. The earlier work revealed a Jamaican black writing about his Jamaican youth, in dialect and...

(The entire section is 798 words.)