Claude McKay Analysis

A Rediscovered Poet

In the early 1900’s, two Jamaicans, almost exact contemporaries, arrived in New York and influenced the course of African American life: in 1916, Marcus Garvey, who organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association; and in 1914, Claude McKay, one of the main inspirers of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920’s cultural development of the arts and literature that, though it lasted for only a decade, permanently influenced the course of black self-expression in the United States. Both men died in relative obscurity after their fame had diminished; Garvey’s reputation has since declined, so that he is now known to few except scholars, but McKay’s has steadily increased, so that he is considered one of the ornaments of African American literature. He has been posthumously proclaimed Jamaica’s national poet, and he has been the subject of an international conference of literary scholars. McKay has retained his stature as both poet and fictionist, even though he was attacked for his presentation of black life in Home to Harlem (1928) by the distinguished black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, for his left-wing political sympathies and activities by the Howard University philosopher Alain Locke (who is sometimes regarded as the mentor of the Harlem Renaissance), and for his ultimate conversion to Roman Catholicism. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countée Cullen, and Langston Hughes also helped in the development of modern African American poetry, but only Hughes...

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Other literary forms

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

Even though he is probably best known as a poet, Claude McKay’s verse makes up a relatively small portion of his literary output. Although his novels, Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933), do not place him at the forefront of American novelists, they were remarkable at the time for their frankness and slice-of-life realism. Home to Harlem was the first best-selling novel of the Harlem Renaissance, yet it was condemned by the majority of black critics, who felt that the black American art and literature emerging in the 1920’s and 1930’s should present an uplifting image of the African American. McKay, however, went on in his next two novels to express his admiration for the earthy ways of uneducated lower-class blacks, somewhat at the expense of black intellectuals. The remainder of McKay’s published fiction appears in Gingertown (1932), a volume of short stories.

McKay also produced a substantial body of literary and social criticism, a revealing selection of which appears, along with a number of his letters and selections from his fiction and poetry, in The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948 (1973), edited by Wayne F. Cooper. An autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), and an important social history, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), round out the list of his principal works.

The Poet as Troubador

Later in life, McKay described himself as a “troubador wanderer”; this is a most apt sobriquet, for it stresses his primary attachment to poetry and incidentally alludes to his constant search for the ideal life for the black poet in an essentially white culture. This eremetic existence commenced in 1912, a singularly important year in McKay’s life, for in that year his first volumes of poetry were published (Songs of Jamaica in Kingston and Constab Ballads in London); six of his poems, set to Jekyll’s music, were issued in London; and he won an international poetry contest sponsored by a London newspaper.

McKay’s winning poem was “George William Gordon to the Oppressed Natives,” which celebrated the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion that was supposedly encouraged by the Baptist mulatto politician Gordon. The final stanza of the poem offers a remarkable foreshadowing of what later became McKay’s most famous poem, “If We Must Die”:

Gordon’s heart here bleeds for you. He will lead to victory:We will conquer every foe, Or together gladly die.

The poem also contains lines that prefigure the exhortation of McKay’s great propagandistic poems: “Rise, O people of my kind!/ Struggle, struggle to be free.”

Unfortunately, the poem is marred by intrusive approximations of Jamaican dialect in lines that are generally in Standard English poetic idiom: “O, you sons of Afric’s soil” is followed by “Show dem dat you ha’ some brains.” It seems improbable that Gordon would have told Jamaicans that they should “Wake . . ./ De gorilla in your blood/ Though you may be coarse and rude.” Nevertheless, the poet’s enthusiasm, anger, and energy shine through.

In his preface to Songs of Jamaica, which is dedicated (rather judiciously) to Sir Sydney Olivier, the governor of the colony, Walter Jekyll describes Jamaican English as “a feminine version of masculine English; pre-eminently a language of love, as all will feel who, setting prejudice aside, will allow the charmingly naive love-songs of this volume to make their due impression upon them.” Of the fifty poems in the...

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Claude McKay received a medal from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences (1912), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Harmon Foundation Award (1929) for Harlem Shadows and Home to Harlem, an award from the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild (1937), and the Order of Jamaica. He was named that country’s national poet in 1977.

McKay’s contribution to American poetry cannot, however, be measured in awards and citations alone. His peculiar pilgrimage took him from Jamaica to Moscow, from communism to Catholicism, from Harlem to Marseilles. He lived and worked among common laborers most of his life, and developed a respect for them worthy of that of Walt Whitman. He rejected the critical pronouncements of his black contemporaries, and as poet and critic Melvin Tolson points out, he “was unaffected by the New Poetry and Criticism.” His singular blend of modern political and social radicalism with the timeworn cadences of the sonnet won for him, at best, mixed reviews from many critics, black and white.

In any attempt to calculate his poetic achievement, however, one must realize that, with the exception of his early Jamaican dialect verse (certainly an important contribution in its own right to the little-studied literature of the British West Indies) and some rather disappointing poetry composed late in his life, his poetic career spanned little more than a decade. At the publication in...

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Dialect and Standard English

There is no doubt that McKay’s use of dialect in his poems was an advance on the use of dialect by such predecessors as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who used it largely for either comic or role-establishing purposes; McKay used dialect for social verisimilitude, to attempt to capture the Jamaican inflections and idiom, to differentiate the speech of the folk from that of the colonial classes. Upon quitting Jamaica for the United States, however, McKay discontinued his use of dialect, even when, in some of his American “protest” poems that make use of African American diction, dialect would be appropriate and even effective.

Few poets have had such success as McKay had achieved by the time that he was twenty-two. He was...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Claude McKay’s literary career started when he began writing poetry at an early age in his native Jamaica. In 1917, he published two poems in Seven Arts under the pen name Eli Edwards. Later in New York, when he was coeditor of the magazine The Liberator, he published one of his most famous poems, “If We Must Die” (1919), as well as essays and articles. A collection of McKay’s short stories as well as a nonfiction volume were published in Russian in the early 1920’s; English translations of these works did not appear until the late 1970’s. Gingertown, a collection of short stories, was published in 1932, and McKay also wrote two autobiographical books: A Long Way from Home (1937) and...

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Selected Poems

Selected Poems of Claude McKay is organized into five sections: “Songs for Jamaica,” “Baptism,” “Americana,” “Different Places,” and “Amoroso” (titles invented by the compilers). The first section contains several poems of reminiscence, such as “To One Coming North,” “Home Thoughts,” “I Shall Return,” the beautiful and affecting “Flame Heart,” and “The Tropics in New York,” with its concluding lines, “And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,/ I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.” The second section, which might have been titled “Baptism by Fire,” since it contains those protest poems that McKay wrote after his introduction to the racism and segregation that he discovered...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Claude McKay was always considered a talented writer, and for a time during his youth and early adulthood, his literary output brought him fame and popularity. In 1912, when he was only twenty-three years old, the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences in Kingston awarded him a gold medal for his poetry published that year in two volumes, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. In 1922, as a representative of the American Workers Party, he attended the Third Communist International Conference in Moscow, Russia, and had the singular honor of addressing the assemblage. In 1928 he won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, presented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for his...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Contains a long chapter, “The Jamaican Poetry as Autobiography: Claude McKay in 1912,” that offers an excellent introduction to the poet’s work.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972. Proposes that McKay was the true warrior-poet of the black people in his era. Offers detailed analyses of four poems: “Flame-Heart,” “Harlem Shadows,” “To the White Fiends,” and “If We Must Die.”

Giles, James R....

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Brown-Rose, J. A. Critical Nostalgia and Caribbean Migration. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. Examines Caribbean writers including McKay, Jamaica Kincaid, Maryse Condé, and Edwidge Danticat, focusing on migration issues.

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. This first full-length biography of McKay is a fascinating and very readable book. Special attention is paid to McKay’s early life in Jamaica and the complex influences of his family. Includes nine photographs and a useful index.

Egar, Emmanuel E. The Poetics of...

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