He was looking for what the author had called the “largest and bawdiest bar in Lenox Avenue,” the Merry-Go-Round. This was where labor leader Sufi Abdul Hamid, wearing a turban “like a black Buddha,” thundered against Harlem’s morally depraved. While the gutterbugs drank whiskey in front of the bar, Hamid urged a boycott of the place to show support for Ethiopia’s resistance against her Italian aggressors. Or so novelist Claude McKay imagined in a newly-disclosed unpublished manuscript, unearthed by Columbia graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier .
One recent afternoon, Cloutier retraced the plot of “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem” through the neighborhood around 125th Street, where the fictionalized Hamid waged his labor battle seven decades earlier.
“So, the Merry-Go Round must have been where the Red Rooster is now,” Cloutier said, consulting a printout of the manuscript and surveying the changed neighborhood. “But I guess it could also be Fitness World.”
In “Amiable,” the Jamaican-born McKay describes Harlem in the 1930s as a globalized place, where people rallied in solidarity with African and black communities around the world. Set in New York in 1936 – but written in 1941 – the novel takes place amid the historical events leading up to World War II and features characters based on real figures of the time, including Sufi Abdul Hamid, a labor agitator and actual friend of McKay’s who, because of his tirades against Jewish shopkeepers who wouldn’t hire black workers, was dubbed The Black Hitler.
“No other novel gives the same global image of Harlem in the ‘30s. When you read it, you can feel that black international backdrop right here,” Cloutier said, excitedly stomping the pavement. “Today, Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz write like that, but no one back then did.”
Cloutier, currently writing his dissertation, discovered the manuscript three years ago while rummaging through the long-untouched papers of literary publisher Samuel Roth at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where he was an intern.
Cloutier, looking through every box, suddenly stumbled upon a black school binder with floppy covers and stained pages.
“I took it out and was about to put it in an acid-free folder to be stored for archiving when I read the title on the front page,” he recounted. “I thought, ‘What? This can’t be true. This can’t be what it looks like.”
He remembered a sense of disbelief and thought maybe he didn’t recognize the book out of ignorance.
But there was nothing he could do. “I was being paid to process the collection, not to research,” he said. “So I couldn’t just sit there and read the novel, even though I was really intrigued.”
“Actually,” he admitted, “I did cheat and read a little bit.”
After doing some independent research, Cloutier went to his dissertation adviser, Professor Brent Edwards, who had worked extensively on Claude McKay.
“I wondered if he was just going to tell me that I was an idiot and that everyone had heard of the novel,” Cloutier said. “But he was like, ‘Oh, wow’ – and we made a copy of it right away.”
Over the weekend, the two read the book and became certain that it was indeed McKay’s work.
“It was a nice feeling,” Cloutier reminisced. “At that point, we were probably the only two people alive who had read the book.”
Cloutier and Edwards morphed into literary detectives, searching for clues in archives around the country in order to prove that the novel was authentic, as the McKay estate recently recognized.
Among the evidence they found were evidence of an advance payment for the novel from the E.P. Dutton Inc. publishing house and correspondence with acquaintances, like a letter from someone named Alice: “I’m glad you finished your book. I’m trying to think what that high faluting title is.”*
“Without knowing that the novel existed, it would have been impossible to know what she was talking about,” said Cloutier.
“A lot of the thrill has been our collaboration,” said Edwards via email. “Academic life can be quite solitary, and it’s been a great pleasure not only to see a student make such a major discovery, but also to have the chance to work closely with him on a project that has taught us a great deal about McKay, as well as a whole range of topics.”
Strolling along 125th Street, which in the 30s became the heart of Harlem, Cloutier pointed out a narrow building in peeling pink paint, now a health clinic, where McKay lived and wrote to Roth. Their correspondence, examined during the authentication process, proved a relationship between the two men. Other signs that the manuscript was indeed Claude McKay’s were the author’s use of terms he coined, like “Aframerican,” along with familiar themes and reappearing characters.
“Amiable,” written when McKay’s books were going out of print, never left Samuel Roth’s hands.
“It’s a tragedy that the book wasn’t published,” said Cloutier, pointing out that McKay, who died at 57 of heart failure in 1948, was poor and sick when he gave Roth the manuscript.
“The book could have helped feed him,” Cloutier said. “Who knows, maybe if his critics had read the book, they would have treated him better.”
Now, Edwards added, “I think it will be recognized as the key political novel of the black intellectual life in New York in the late 1930s.”
Cloutier stopped on 110th Street with his back to Central Park, looking up Lenox Avenue. Here, the novel opens on sunny a Sunday, with a massive parade to welcome an Ethiopian envoy whom McKay modeled on two historical Ethiopian figures.
“The novel makes you remember how important the Ethiopian cause was for the black community,” said Cloutier. “It makes you remember persons that slipped through the cracks of history”.
The McKay estate is working to negotiate a contract to publish “Amiable With Big Teeth.” Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Edwards will edit the novel and write an introduction.
*Correction: The article originally and erroneously said the researchers found a contract for the novel.