Unpublished Claude McKay novel found

Published: Sunday | September 16, 2012 Comments 0

The international literary world is still coming to terms with the recent discovery of a previously unknown manuscript by Jamaican-born writer and political activist Claude McKay.

The New York Times yesterday reported that a Columbia graduate student and his adviser have authenticated the student's discovery of the unknown manuscript of a 1941 novel by McKay who died in 1948.

A leading Harlem Renaissance writer and author of the first novel by a black American to become a best-seller, McKay's 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.

The just-discovered 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.

A major discovery

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.

"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 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.

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. Roth attended Columbia and his family donated his collection to the university.

No one knew of a connection between Roth and McKay, Cloutier said, as he came upon the roughly 300-page double-spaced manuscript, bound between cardboard-like covers bearing the novel's title and McKay's name.

He also found two letters from McKay to Roth about possibly ghostwriting a novel to be called Descent Into Harlem, about an Italian immigrant who settles in Harlem.

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