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Amiable: Harlem Renaissance Poet and Writer Claude McKay’s Just-Discovered Novel

By Harriet Staff

Don’t stop us if you’ve heard this one already. Over the weekend, The New York Times announced the amazing discovery by a Columbia graduate student and his advisor of an unpublished novel by Harlem Renaissance poet and writer Claude McKay. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was one of the scholars called on to examine the novel. Gates said, “It dramatically expands the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers and, obviously, novels by Claude McKay.” More:

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.

Read the full article here.

Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.