Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone
Scholars are referring to a Columbia graduate’s discovery of an unknown manuscript of a 1941 novel by leading Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay a ‘major discovery.’ Columbia graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier and his adviser, Brent Hayes Edwards, have authenticated Cloutier’s discovery of the manuscript.
According to the New York Times, the newly 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 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.
“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.
The discovery was made 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. Cloutier sorting through more than 50 boxes of materials belonging to Samuel Roth, a man 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.
The connection between Roth and McKay was unknown prior to the discovery, 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 Roth about possibly ghostwriting a novel to be called “Descent Into Harlem,” about an Italian immigrant who settles in Harlem. Cloutier quickly took his discovery to Brent Hayes Edwards, his dissertation adviser and an expert in black literature. 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).
Cloutier and 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 an abundance 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,” 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 Maxwell, a professor of English and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Many scholars believe that the Harlem Renaissance’s creative energy had pretty much run out by the late 1930s. But 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,” Edwards continued. “There are scenes with artists in salons, in nightclubs, in queer nightclubs. It has almost a documentary aspect.” The McKay manuscript remains where Cloutier found it, now archived in Box 29, Folders 7 and 8, of the Samuel Roth papers.
McKay was the first African American to write a best seller novel. McKay, a Jamaican-born writer and political activist who died in 1948, 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.”