[Marxism] New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 15 08:55:23 MDT 2012


NY Times September 14, 2012
New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found
By FELICIA R. LEE

A Columbia graduate student and his adviser have authenticated the 
student’s discovery of an unknown manuscript of a 1941 novel by Claude 
McKay, a leading Harlem Renaissance writer and author of the first novel 
by a black American to become a best seller.

The manuscript, “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair 
Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” was 
discovered in a previously untouched university archive and offers an 
unusual window on the ideas and events (like Mussolini’s invasion of 
Ethiopia) that animated Harlem on the cusp of World War II. The two 
scholars have received permission from the McKay estate to publish the 
novel, a satire set in 1936, with an introduction about how it was found 
and its provenance verified.

McKay, a Jamaican-born writer and political activist who died in 1948, 
at 58 (though some biographies say 57), influenced a generation of black 
writers, including Langston Hughes. His work includes the 1919 protest 
poem “If We Must Die,” (quoted by Winston Churchill) and “Harlem 
Shadows,” a 1922 poetry collection that some critics say ushered in the 
Harlem Renaissance. He also wrote the 1928 best-selling novel “Home to 
Harlem.” But his last published fiction during his lifetime was the 1933 
novel “Banana Bottom.”

“This is a major discovery,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard 
University scholar, who was one of three experts called upon to examine 
the novel and supporting research. “It dramatically expands the canon of 
novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers and, obviously, novels by 
Claude McKay.

“More important, because it was written in the second half of the Harlem 
Renaissance, it shows that the renaissance continued to be vibrant and 
creative and turned its focus to international issues — in this case the 
tensions between Communists, on the one hand, and black nationalists, on 
the other, for the hearts and minds of black Americans,” said Mr. Gates, 
the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African 
American Research at Harvard.

This literary detective story began in the summer of 2009, when 
Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a doctoral candidate in English and 
comparative literature, was working as an intern in the Rare Book and 
Manuscript Library at Columbia. He was going through more than 50 boxes 
of materials belonging to Samuel Roth, a kind of literary pariah who 
died in 1974 and is best known for being the appellant in a famous 
obscenity case in the 1950s.

Mr. Roth is also known for publishing work without permission, including 
excerpts from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and editions of “Lady Chatterley’s 
Lover,” by D. H. Lawrence. Mr. Roth attended Columbia, and his family 
donated his collection to the university.

No one knew of a connection between Mr. Roth and McKay, Mr. Cloutier 
said, as he came upon the roughly 300-page double-spaced manuscript, 
bound between cardboardlike covers bearing the novel’s title and McKay’s 
name. He also found two letters from McKay to Mr. Roth about possibly 
ghostwriting a novel to be called “Descent Into Harlem,” about an 
Italian immigrant who settles in Harlem.

“Amiable” is a different story, though, rife with political intrigue, 
romance, seedy nightclubs and scenes of black intellectual and artistic 
life in Harlem during the Great Depression.

Mr. Cloutier quickly took his discovery to Brent Hayes Edwards, his 
dissertation adviser and an expert in black literature. Mr. Edwards, a 
professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, knew that 
McKay had published three novels during his lifetime (including “Banjo,” 
in 1929.) A novella, “Harlem Glory: A Fragment Of Aframerican Life,” was 
published posthumously).

But he and Mr. Cloutier immediately found in “Amiable” themes that 
recurred across McKay’s work, like Communism and labor strikes in 
Harlem, and characters, like the real-life labor leader Sufi Abdul 
Hamid. The term “Aframerican,” which McKay used to refer to black people 
in the Western Hemisphere, also appeared in “Amiable.”

Mr. Cloutier and Mr. Edwards gathered additional evidence by rummaging 
through archives at libraries around the country, including at Yale, 
Indiana University, Emory University and the Schomburg Center for 
Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library (which 
manages the McKay estate).

They ended up amassing a mountain of archival and circumstantial 
evidence pointing to McKay’s authorship. But it was the extensive 
correspondence between McKay and his friend Max Eastman, the writer, 
political activist and avid supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, that 
ultimately convinced them that “Amiable” was indeed McKay’s, they said.

“The irrefutable archival evidence we have is when Eastman directly 
quotes from the novel,” Mr. Cloutier said. “McKay sent him pages, all 
from the summer of 1941 and a bit later.” (They also found letters 
referring to a contract between McKay and E. P. Dutton to write the novel.)

The authentication of the novel is “scholarly gold,” said William J. 
Maxwell, the editor of “Complete Poems: Claude McKay.” Its mocking 
portraits of Communists show McKay’s decisive break with Communism and 
his effort to turn his political evolution into art, said Mr. Maxwell, a 
professor of English and African-American Studies at Washington 
University in St. Louis.

Moreover, while the flowering of arts known as the Harlem Renaissance 
obsessively documented black life in the 1920s, he said, far less is 
known about the period of the 1930s, focused on in “Amiable.”

Many scholars believe that the Harlem Renaissance’s creative energy had 
pretty much run out by the late 1930s. But Mr. Edwards said he believed 
that “Amiable” would eventually be recognized “as the key political 
novel of the black intellectual life in New York in the late 1930s.”

McKay represents the Communists as amiable with big teeth, he said, but 
they end up being a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“I cannot think of another novel that gives us such a rich and 
multilayered portrayal of black life,” Mr. Edwards continued. “There are 
scenes with artists in salons, in nightclubs, in queer nightclubs. It 
has almost a documentary aspect.”

Despite his moment in the spotlight, Mr. Cloutier is still in the middle 
of his dissertation, which he expects to complete in 2013 or 2014. Its 
title? “Archival Vagabonds: 20th Century American Fiction and the 
Archives in Novelistic Practice.” And the McKay manuscript remains where 
Mr. Cloutier found it, now archived in Box 29, Folders 7 and 8, of the 
Samuel Roth papers.




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