Scholars of the Harlem Renaissance are eager to delve into the recently-unearthed Claude McKay manuscript, “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” hoping it will help explain McKay’s disenchantment with Communism and shed light on the sexual politics of the 1920s.
McKay’s iconoclasm, rejection of communism, possible bisexuality and late-life conversion to Catholicism continue to make him an intriguing but poignant figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
“He was a great observer, but that’s probably because he was on the outside looking in,” said Tyrone Tillery, a University of Houston specialist in African-American and civil rights history who has published a McKay biography.
His life was a “painful struggle,” says Tillery. “The only time I found McKay happy was after ‘Home to Harlem’” – his 1928 novel– “was published. McKay is one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most electric but also most tragic figures; he was a paradox.”
Scholars also hope the new novel will illuminate McKay’s antagonistic relationship with other black intellectuals.
“McKay’s ‘Home to Harlem’ is notable for the way it portrays lower working-class black life. That book challenged the idea that black artists and intellectuals should portray only proper or middle-class black characters. This newly-discovered book could shed more light on black life in the moments leading up to World War II,” said Miriam Thaggert, a University of Iowa professor of English and African American Studies.
“It will also be important to see what new insights ‘Amiable’ will disclose about the relationship between Communists and black intellectuals during the period.”
McKay was a Trotskyite until he visited Russia in the 1920s, where he was feted but ultimately spurned by the Communist Party, embittering him for life.
“He believed the Communists would be able to transcend race,” said Tillery, but he was eventually disappointed.
Compared to “Home to Harlem,” this novel is “concerned much more with political relationships,” said William J. Maxwell of Washington University, one of three experts who authenticated the work after a graduate student came upon it in the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
“McKay was deeply involved, not just a spectator,” says Maxwell of McKay’s Communist phase. “Amiable,” contains “a lot of bitterness,” he said, and it includes searing caricatures of Communists.
Tillery hopes the manuscript will confirm his theory. “My central argument is that the Communist Party profoundly affected McKay’s life,” he said.
But other scholars think it’s a mistake to oversimplify his politics. “McKay was far more complex than people make him out to be,” said historian Winston James of the University of California, Irvine, author of a book on McKay’s Jamaican years*.
McKay’s “uncommon courage, almost foolhardiness, set him apart from his contemporaries; he suffered because of his candor,” said James. “He identified very strongly with the black poor who were suffering during the Depression era.”
Maxwell is convinced the book will be key to understanding McKay’s later years, when he was living “hand to mouth, sending excruciating begging letters to friends.”
By the time McKay wrote “Amiable” in 1941, “he’s an older man,” Maxwell said. “He’s no longer with it; the scene had moved on.”
Feminism and misogyny are two areas New York University historian and author David Levering Lewis highlights as areas of ongoing research for Harlem Renaissance scholars, along with the “sexual flexibility” of novelists at the time.
Researching McKay in the 1970s, Levering Lewis said he was dissuaded from writing about his sexual orientation because of editors’ and scholars’ fear that it would undermine the civil rights aspect of McKay’s work. He hopes the discovery of Amiable will enliven debate about Renaissance figures and their sexual identities.
“Many were gay and proud; you really can’t understand the Renaissance without recognizing that,” he said.
Researchers are also keen to learn more about McKay’s relationship with Samuel Roth, among whose correspondence the “Amiable” manuscript was discovered. Roth, renowned as a plagiarizer and a pornographer in the 1950s, was particularly excited, Tillery said, by political exposes, criminal exploits and salacious celebrity biographies.
“I would love to know more about their correspondence,” he said.
*The article originally referred to Winston James’ book as a collection of McKay’s Jamaican poetry; it includes poetry but is more accurately a book on his Jamaican years.