The life and Writings of Claude McKay IntroductionEvery literary period can be defined by a group of writers. For the Harlem Renaissance, which was an extraordinary eruption of creativity among Black Americans in all fields of art, Claude McKay was the leader. Claude McKay was a major asset to the Harlem Renaissance with his contributions of such great pieces of writings such as If We Must Die and The Lynching. McKay wrote in many different styles. His work which vary from dialect verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica, to militant poems challenging white authority in the United States, to philosophically ambitious novels about the effort of blacks to cope in western society (Claude McKay 1375) displays the depth of this great writer. The main ideals of this poet were to raise social issues and to inspire his people. McKay used his writing as an outlet for his feelings of distrust toward those who he believed oppressed his people. In many ways McKays writing affected his life, but in even more ways McKays life affected his writing. The writings of Claude McKay were constantly changing throughout his life and caused him to be the most dynamic poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
BiographyClaude McKay was born in Sunny Ville Jamaica on September 15 in 1880 to Thomas Francis and Ann Elizabeth McKay (Ali 201). McKay grew up in a relatively prosperous family and had British schooling in the predominantly black small town of Sunny Ville. It was in his British schooling that McKay learned about traditional forms of writing such as sonnets. However, McKay learned an alternative education from his father who gave him his strong sense of African pride. Claude McKays father told him about his ancestry and Claude McKays grandfathers life as a slave (Masiello 244). From these lessons and his strong black surroundings, McKay received African traditions as well as an appreciation for the purity of black hood (Ali 201). Also from McKays agnostic brother, who tutored him, McKay gained his freethinking attitude (Claude McKay 1375). McKay soon gained a distrust of white people when he moved to Kingston, at the age of nineteen. In 1911, upon reaching Kingston, McKay experienced bigotry and racism unlike anything he had encountered in Sunny Ville. McKay got a job as a constable but soon grew tired of it due to his feeling that he was oppressing his people by enforcing laws unjustly slanted against the black residents of the city. The contrast of these two cities inspired McKay to write Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads (Masiello 244). These two pieces of writing were published by Walter Jekyll, a publisher who encouraged McKay to write poetry rooted in Jamaican folk culture and with Jamaican Dialect. These pieces of writing differed from the traditional form of writing he learned in his schooling, but gave McKay his first piece of recognition. These two pieces of writing were so successful that they allowed McKay to be the first black writer to receive the medal from the Jamaican institute of Arts and Sciences. McKay used the money that he received from this award to go to America to study agriculture (Masiello 245).
McKay came to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to study agriculture but left within two months. He transferred to Kansas State and stayed there until 1914 when he lost interest in the field of agriculture and returned to his writing (Masiello 245). McKay then had a few years with little success, this was when he initially moved to Harlem. In 1914, he married Eulalie Imelda Edwards, the marriage ended within six months (Ali 201). From 1914 to 1919, McKay was not very successful as a writer, and only had his work published under the pseudonym Eli Edwards (Claude McKay 1375). He was also forced to work medial jobs such as a dining-car waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad. These hard times later rendered the novel Home to Harlem (Hathaway 290). McKays situation soon improved; he began sending his writing to black publications as well as leftist political periodicals. In 1918, McKay met Frank Harris, who was the editor of Pearsons Magazine. He became McKays major patron and helped McKays work get published. One such writing was If We Must Die, which was published in Max Eastmans The Liberator (Maxwell, McKay Chronology). If We Must Die is likely McKays most successful piece of writing. It was well received by the common black person as well as leftist critics. The poem was so popular and well received that it was remembered for decades. Even Winston Churchill quoted the poem in a speech against the Nazis. The militant nature and inspiring diction was revolutionary. If We Must Die became a symbolic manifesto for the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (Ali 205).
In 1919, McKay moved to London and got involved in communist culture. He read Karl Marx and got a job on the communist periodical The Workers Dreadnought (Maxwell, McKay Chronology). In this periodical, McKay encouraged communist to except blacks as equals and to oppose the European Imperialist (Masiello 245). He would later travel to the Soviet Union to attend the fourth congress of the communist party. However, he soon began to feel disenfranchised with the communist party due to their use of his art as Political Propaganda (Claude McKay 1375). In 1921, McKay moved back to New York to work as an editor on Max Eastmans Leftist Magazine The Liberator (Masiello 245).
McKay resigned from his position as editor of The Liberator in June of 1922. He then in 1923 embarked on a ten-year trip around Europe and North Africa. During this time, McKay became disenchanted in Communism and began writing the novels Color Scheme, Banjo, Home to Harlem, and Banana Bottom. He focused on novels opposed to poems, which he had found success in the past, despite his failure in the novel Color Scheme. McKay also gained an interest in Catholicism that later led to his conversion during this time.
After McKay returned to America his writing style had changed. In 1938, he met the Roman Catholic Writer Ellen Tarry and converted to Catholicism in 1944. He wrote the Essay, On Becoming a Roman Catholic and the Poem look within (Maxwell, McKay Chronology). This life change was likely brought on by a stroke that McKay had while working in a federal shipyard. He soon moved to Chicago and taught classes to Catholic Youth. He stayed in Chicago until his death on the 22 of May 1948, when he was buried in Harlem.
StyleMcKays writing changed throughout his lifetime. In the beginning he wrote in Jamaican Dialect, Later he wrote poems that were politically inspiring, and in his later years, he wrote for his Catholic faith. Each of these styles were a reflection of the events in his life. However, some things remained the same throughout his lifetime. He never wrote for the money and he always wrote to express himself. He always wrote to put a message across. He wrote to cause change.
In the Beginning, while he still lived in Jamaica he wrote Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. These two pieces of writing were unlike his later works in that they were in raw Jamaican Dialect. These wrings were meant to reflect the beauty of the struggle of his people. The essence of his early writing is captured in the poem Quashie to Buccra in which a black man is cheated out of a fair price for his yams by the white man, yet he still succeeds in getting the man to appreciate the harvest and beauty of the land (Ali 203). This shows McKays acceptance of the social situation as well as his pride for what his people are and what it is that they do. At this time in his writing, McKays main focus was to show his love for what Jamaica is, despite its faults. This is best seen in the poem My Native Land, My Home. In this poem McKay writes Jamaica is de niggers place, / No mind whes some declare:/ Although dem call we no-land race,/ I know we home is here (sic) (Ali 203). This poem characterizes what his pre-Harlem writing style. After McKay moved to Harlem, his writing style changed. He no longer accepted things for how they are, he wrote for change. This is likely due to the racism that he encountered upon moving to Harlem that re-inspired him to write (Masiello 245). It was during this stage in his writing that McKay found the most success. McKays reputation as an author was never greater than during his period of fame in the 1920s (Masiello 1376).His writings in this time were often said to characterize the Harlem Renaissance, the period of unprecedented artistic and intellectual achievement among Black Americans (Masiello 1376). McKay is said to be one of the most important factors in the Harlem Renaissance. Diane Masiello goes as far to write that He was a key figure in, if not the first major poet of, the Harlem Renaissance, and many of his works paved the way for the 1920s literary movement and defined the trends that would characterize it (244). His Poems like Lynching and If We Must Die inspired his people and were almost always well received by leftist critics. However, many black critics hated his writing. Marcus Garvey claimed that white people have these Negroes McKay to write the kind of stuff that they desire to feed their public with so that the negro can still be regarded as a monkey, or some imbecilic creature (Martin 85). Marcus Garvey also called McKay a literary prostitute (Martin 85), and prefaced articles about him with rhetoric such as It is my duty to bring to your attention the evil that afflicts us as a people (Martin 84). Some critics said that his militant way of writing caused him to address topics as sweet as a rose with hostility. In this time of writing, McKay received the most praise but also received the most destructive criticism in his career.
After his period of fame in America, McKay traveled around Europe as a novelist. In this ten-year span, he wrote four books. These books allowed McKay to venture into deeper thoughts and go into more involving stories. McKay retained some of his political aspects of writing but left the war cry like lines back in Harlem. Despite the fact that he was far from Harlem, his novels such as Harlem Shadows still had an impact on the Harlem Renaissance. His use of political themes is said to define this era of writing. His book Springs in New Hampshire even received praise from popular poets such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. He found general success in his novels despite the early failure of Color Scheme. He continued his writings of novels when he returned to Harlem until he became ill.
When Claude McKay fell ill and had a stroke, he changed his ways. He converted to Catholicism and moved to Chicago to teach Catholic youth. McKay returned to writing poems and essays, but now they were written to celebrate God. McKays writings still reflected a mind still questioning, but now it was one sure of the source of the answers he seeks. McKay explained his life change by saying that he always possessed a religion-oriented mind, but never had faith in revealed religion (Ali 212). Shortly before McKays death, McKay wrote the sonnet Truth, a glowing testimony to his final acceptance of god (Ali 212).
CriticismMcKay had many different stages in his writing, but his most popular and his most controversial stage was during the time he wrote If We Must Die. This poem was inspired by the red summer of 1919, a series of racially motivated violent events in Chicago against black people (Masiello 245). This poem became the battle cry of the people and represented the militant ideals of Claude McKay: If We Must Die by Claude McKayIf we must die, let it not be like hogsHunted and penned in an inglorious spot,While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,Making their mock at our accursd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,So that our precious blood may not be shedIn vain; then even the monsters we defyShall be constrained to honor us though dead!O, kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!What though before us lies the open grave?Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!This poem was an instant success. It was described as rebellious and vituperative (Claude McKay 1380). McKay regarded it highly, saying that this poem Exploded out of him and for it the Negro people unanimously hailed him as a poet (qtd. In Maxwell, On If We Must Die). In This poem McKay uses the traditional sonnet format to address a very untraditional topic. This poem characterized the unrest of the time and represented it as a battled that was taking place. This controversial poem inspired the black public and left the black critics apologetic. This poem, which voiced a deep-routed instinct of self-preservation, seemed to some critics to be a piece of impertinence (Claude McKay 1380). In The Poem If We Must Die, much of the meaning can be found in the title. The word If brings about a feeling that this poem reaches beyond the time and place. From the word Must the poem gets a clear sense of necessity. The word Must also gives an empirical tone to the poem that gives the mood of a battle. The Finite nature of death gives the title resolution and goes with Must in showing that this course of action has no alternative.
The poems animal imagery gives the reader a feeling of the horrible conditions that one must face in this battle. The simile like hogs and the metaphor hungry dogs give the reader a sense that they are currently being treated like lowly animals. Words like penned down and bark, add to this feeling as well as introducing the idea that the battle is between that which is human and that that is not. As the Poem progresses, the animal imagery changed from being directed to the army of the oppressed the army of the oppressors. This fulcrum is seen when the oppressing army is called the monster we defy. This is a clear change from the comparison of the oppressed army to hogs.
The opposition of words is focused on the difference between nobleness and ignobleness. The oppressed army is described with words of nobility such as brave and kinsmen, while the oppressing army is described with words like murderous and cowardly. In this opposition, the Arthur diction consistently shows a clear difference between the opposing forces. The opposition of words gives a feel that the battle is truly between good and evil. This idea that white people are evil is the reason that black critics attempted to disassociate them selves from McKays Writing.
This poem was the most successful of McKays career. The strong message and powerful presentation of this poem defined McKays writing career as well as the Harlem Renaissance. McKays attitude of disregarding hateful criticism stood as a guide for Black American Poets. This Poem is the clearest example of the affect if McKays writing on modern Poetry.
ConclusionClaude McKays writing will forever remain to be a defining factor for what the Harlem Renaissance. His depth in his many stages of writing serves as a basis for his importance. Throughout his life he changed as his writing changed. He wrote for himself and his people, even if he was poorly received. He did not write for monetary gains, he wrote to inspire and celebrate the grandeur of his people. His style changed black modern poetry. He is a poet, a novelist, an essayist and most of all a revolutionary. He served as the prototype of the poet for the Harlem Renaissance.
Work CitedAli, Schavi Mali. Claude McKay. Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940. vol. 52. Ed.:Trudier Harris. Detroit: Gale Research Inc, 1987. 201-212.
Claude McKay. BLACK LITERATURE CRITISISM, Ed. Draper, James. Detroit: Gale Research Inc, 1992. 1375-1385.
Hathaway, Heather. African American Literature. Ed.:Andrews, William. New York: Oxford University, 1997. 489-490.
Martin, Tony. African Fundamentalism. Massachusetts: Majority Press, 1991.8-9, 69-70, 84-87.
Masiello, Dianne. Claude McKay. AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991. 244-246.
Maxwell, William. McKay on If We Must Die.” Claude McKay. 1999 http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/mckay/mustdie.htm (10 March 2002).
—. McKay Chronology. Claude McKay. 1999 http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/mckay/mustdie.htm (10 March 2002).
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