This sample Claude McKay Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Claude McKay was one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance. In all of his works, McKay searched among the common folk for a distinctive black identity, hoping to find a way to preserve the African spirit and creativity in an alienating world. Perhaps more than any other black writer of his time, McKay managed to convert anger and social protest into poems of lasting value.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Sense of Racial Pride
McKay was born in the hills of Jamaica to peasant farmers whose sense of racial pride greatly affected the young McKay. His father was instrumental in reinforcing this pride, telling him folktales about Africa as well as stories about McKay’s African grandfather’s enslavement. From accounts of his grandfather’s experiences with white men, McKay acquired an early distrust for whites. Under the tutelage of his brother, a schoolteacher and avowed agnostic (one who does not proclaim a belief in a god or gods) McKay was imbued with freethinking ideas and philosophies.
In 1907 he left his rural home to apprentice as a woodworker in Brown’s Town, where he met Walter Jekyll, an English linguist and specialist in Jamaican folklore. Jekyll helped further McKay’s developing interest in English poetry, introducing him to works by John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He also encouraged McKay to write verse in his native dialect. In 1909 McKay moved to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, where he later served as a constable. His native town, Sunny Ville, was predominantly black, but in substantially white Kingston, the caste society, which placed blacks below whites and mulattoes, revealed to McKay alienating and degrading aspects of city life and racism. His exposure to overt racism in Kingston soon led him to identify strongly with the plight of blacks, who, he saw to his alarm, there lived under the near-total control of whites.
Establishing Literary and Political Ties
In 1912, with Jekyll’s assistance, McKay published his first volumes of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. Both works are collections of lyrical verse written in Jamaican vernacular; the former celebrates nature and the peasant’s bond to the soil, while the latter decries injustices of city life. In the same year, McKay traveled to the United States to study agriculture. After attending Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Kansas State College, he decided to quit his studies in 1914 and move to New York City.
By 1917, because of his associations with two prominent men of letters—Frank Harris, editor of Pearson’s Magazine, in which McKay’s militant poem ”To The White Fiends” appeared, and Max Eastman, editor of the Communist magazine The Liberator, in which the poem ”If We Must Die” was first published—McKay established literary and political ties with left-wing thinkers in Greenwich Village. Partly because of the injustices exposed by World War I and the success of the Russian Revolution, socialism was rising in popularity in the United States, particularly among poor members of the working classes. After the publication of ”If We Must Die” in 1919, McKay began two years of travel and work abroad. In London he worked on the socialist periodical Workers’ Dreadnought.
Starting the Harlem Renaissance
McKay returned to the United States in 1921 and took up various social causes. His most highly acclaimed poetry volume, Harlem Shadows (1922), appeared the following year. Although his work would give rise to the Harlem Renaissance—a flourishing of the arts throughout the African American community for which it is named—McKay left the U.S. shortly thereafter and spent twelve years abroad, traveling first to Moscow to attend the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party. McKay was extolled in the Soviet Union as a great American poet, but he grew disenchanted with the Communist party when it became apparent he would have to subjugate his art to political propaganda. Joseph Stalin, in particular, who gained control of the Soviet Union in 1924, believed that all art should have a utilitarian purpose, such as glorifying the state or the working class; any art that called into question the tenets of socialism, or depicted unnecessary or distasteful human behaviors—as defined by the whims of government leaders—was condemned.
By 1923 McKay had moved to Paris; later, he journeyed to the south of France, Germany, North Africa, and Spain. For the next decade, he concentrated on writing fiction, completing his three most important novels, Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo: A Story without a Plot (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933), as well as a collection of short stories.
Return to Harlem
McKay returned to the United States in 1934 to find the Great Depression in full swing. This was a period of deep financial difficulty marked by massive unemployment—with one in four able workers out of a job—as well as devastating agricultural losses throughout the Midwest. Facing financial difficulties and a neglected American literary reputation, he wrote his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), in an attempt to bolster his financial and literary status. Following the publication of this work, McKay developed an interest in Roman Catholicism and became active in Harlem’s Friendship House, a Catholic community center. His work there led to the writing of Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), a historical essay collection that sold poorly. By the mid-1940s McKay’s health had deteriorated and, after enduring several illnesses, he died of heart failure in Chicago in 1948.
Works in Literary Context
Over the course of his thirty-year writing career, McKay was able to establish his reputation as a master of the dialect poetry of the Jamaican folk; as a sonnet writer of merit, able to treat subjects as diverse as West Indian flora, European cities, and racial conflicts; as a journalist, reviewer, and essayist with strong political beliefs; as a short-story writer of some force; and as a picaresque novelist whose strength was social and emotional realism. McKay was closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, but his work also inspired such Francophone poets as Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor—authors whose verse espoused tenets of negritude, a movement begun in the 1930s that sought to reclaim African cultural heritage—as well as writers of the Black Arts Movement, which flourished during the 1960s through such acclaimed poets as Amiri Baraka and Haki R. Madhubuti.
The Common People and Cultural Synthesis
McKay wrote poems, short stories, and novels expressing the energy and spontaneity of the common people. His work includes dialect verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica, militant poems challenging white authority in the United States, fictional works depicting black life in both Jamaica and America, and philosophically ambitious novels about the efforts of blacks to cope in Western society. His third novel, Banana Bottom, is recognized as his greatest achievement in fiction. Here, as in Home to Harlem, Banjo: A Story without a Plot, and several short stories, McKay depicted the black individual in white Western culture. Commenting on the resolution of Banana Bottom, Michael B. Stoff notes that ”of peasant origin and possessing a cultivated intellect, Bita Plant represents McKay’s first successful synthesis of two cultures.”
Contradictory Relationship with the Harlem Renaissance
What is generally termed the Harlem Renaissance, a decade of black self-awareness and racial pride, is infrequently dated from the appearance in print of Claude McKay’s great sonnet ”If We Must Die,” which commemorated the cataclysmic race riots in the United States during the second half of 1919. The publication in 1919 of ”If We Must Die” was at once a shout of defiance and a proclamation of the unbreakable spirit and courage of the oppressed black individual. So great was the effect of that poem that McKay has been proposed as the founder of the Harlem Renaissance and as the prototype of the modern black social-realist contributor to American culture. When in 1925 Alain Locke (the Howard University philosopher and recorder of black literary and artistic achievement) wrote about the ”New Negro,” he was thinking about those who, in effect, followed in McKay’s path in taking pride in African culture, in Negro racial self-consciousness, and in black folkways.
Yet McKay’s poetry and his life display the presence of conflicting forces: his sense of identity as a black man and his desire to write out of a traditional literary heritage. McKay made few friends in Harlem during the 1920s, and he resisted characterization as a representative of the Harlem literary community. He was troubled that he was so often identified as a black writer rather than as an individual who was struggling to perfect his poetry, which he wanted to be judged by its merit as verse. His absence from Europe and North Africa from 1922 to 1934, his changing political and religious positions, and his often strained relationships with his friends and supporters resulted in a diminished reputation by the time of his death.
However, the development of black studies and Jamaican nationalism in the 1960s redirected attention to McKay, and resulted in a series of analytic studies that have identified his strengths and weaknesses and reestablished his literary reputation in both the United States and the Caribbean. In 1977 he was posthumously awarded the Order of Jamaica and declared the national poet.
Works in Critical Context
McKay’s reputation as an author was never greater than during his period of fame in the 1920s. Despite his apparent decline in later years, his literary accomplishments are acclaimed as pioneering efforts by a black artist, and his influence on later writers is unquestioned. McKay’s poetic forms were once thought by some to be too conventional and limiting for the density of his themes; however, he has recently been praised for the intensity and ardor of his poetry.
Home to Harlem and Banjo
McKay’s first novel, Home to Harlem, was the first novel by a black writer to reach the commercial bestseller lists; it was reprinted five times in two months. Its depiction of the racy life that Carl Van Vechten had presented of Harlem in Nigger Heaven (1926) and its ties to the general atmosphere of good-timing made it an instant success. Burton Rascoe, writing for Bookman, asserts that the novel is ”a book to invoke pity and terror, which is the function of tragedy, and to that extent—that very extent—it is beautiful”; he also applauds the ”Negro slang and dialect.” The reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune compliments the ”stark realism” and maintains that ”sordid truths” are presented with simplicity. Others claimed that the book was more valuable as folklore than as fiction, suggesting that it was, at times, formless.
McKay’s second novel, Banjo: A Story Without a Plot, was considered a sequel to Home to Harlem. One reviewer, focusing on the picture of waterfront life in Marseilles, commented that McKay had achieved an ”unforgettable picture” of it. Others complained that the book had ”little consciousness of plot or form,” but most agreed that the novel was vigorous and engaging, particularly its ”racy Negro idiom.” Another critic comments:
If fault is to be found with the author’s manner, let it be that he is more loyal to his characters than they are themselves, that his realism is a shade too natural and his naturalism too real. But such considerations need spoil no one’s appreciation of a complex task simply and gustily performed.
Addison Gayle asserted that in his first two novels, McKay had been exploring the problem of identity, of the place of the outsider in Western civilization, but since he did not resolve the conflict in either of the first two novels, he tried to do so in his third, Banana Bottom. Most of the reviewers of the book, however, focused more on the scenery and atmosphere than upon theme. Mary Ross, writing for Books, strikes the typical view, pointing out the ”glamour of the tropics” as a strong element in the work, and noting, ”The vividness of the book is due in large part to Mr. McKay’s grasp of the special moods, sights and sounds of his country, its festivals, gayety and ideals.” Others commented upon the humor, pathos, and melodrama in the book, but the island scenery remained prominent in the minds of most of the reviewers.
- Bontemps, Arna, ed. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.
- Conroy, Mary James. Claude McKay: Negro Poet and Novelist. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1968.
- Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
- Cooper, Wayne F., ed. The Passion of Claude McKay. New York: Schocken, 1973.
- Gayle, Addison, Jr. Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War. Detroit, Mich.: Broadside, 1972.
- Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
- Lang, Phyllis Martin. Claude McKay: The Later Years, 1934-48. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1973.
- Mphahlele, Ezekiel. Voices in the Whirlwind. New York:Hill & Wang, 1972.
- Samuels, Wilfred D. Five Afro-Caribbean Voices in American Culture, 1917-1929. Boulder, Colo.: Belmont, 1977.
- Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
- Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated by Kenneth Douglas. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
- Smith, Robert. ”Claude McKay: An Essay in Criticism.” Phylon (1948): 270-273.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.