Claude McKay Long Fiction Analysis
Claude McKay said about his writing, “I must write what I feel, what I know, what I think, what I have seen, what is true”; he also wrote, “Art is not a means of escape but a way to confront the world and expose the true nature of the human spirit.” Having this philosophy and the personal experiences of an exiled Jamaican living first in the United States and then in Europe and North Africa, he found race, class, colonialism, communism, and capitalism to be themes that captured and held his attention throughout most of his career. That he was living during chaotic times—those of World War I and the Great Depression, when the influence of radical movements such as Black Nationalism was growing and spreading—only contributed to his ongoing interest in finding a distinctive black identity to complement his pride in his African heritage.
McKay was certainly a man of contradictions. In his search for his own distinctive identity and place in the world, he experienced various lifestyles and even philosophies, searching for one with which he could feel comfortable. He tried homosexuality even as he tried marriage. He tried Soviet communism, which did not appeal to him and was ultimately disillusioning. The leaders of the Black Nationalist movement did not meet his expectations. He abandoned even atheism and agnosticism finally, as he embraced Roman Catholicism at last.
McKay developed a prose writing style that included the beautiful imagery he had shown in his poetry, especially in his descriptions of the physical attributes of African American characters and of the sights and sites of the New York neighborhood of Harlem. He created natural and unforced dialogue for his characters and “brutally honest” narrative. Although by the standards of the early twenty-first century his style might be considered stilted, his works were ahead of their time in their realism. Some critics consider McKay to be the “first and most militant voice of the Harlem Renaissance.”
He used picaresque elements in his novels, which show the working-class lives of African Americans in the 1920’s. Because he tried to portray these lives in a realistic, even naturalistic manner, some critics at the time of their publication condemned what they saw as a “blatant focus on sex, drugs, alcohol andprostitution.” McKay’s position, however, was that he was presenting black life not only as he lived it but also as he observed it, both in Harlem and, later, in France. He was not surprised that the black intelligentsia, so clamorously represented by Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois, did not like his portrayal. McKay believed that his mission was to show life as he saw it, not as one might wish it to be. Through themes of dislocation, marginality, alienation, and disillusionment, he created stories about characters who were living in the midst of irreconcilable cultural clashes between two societies, one black, the other white.
Home to Harlem
Home to Harlem, McKay’s most widely read novel, is the story of Jake, a black soldier who has gone absent without leave from his unit during World War I and returned to his home in Harlem. He almost immediately picks up a young woman in a...
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