CLAUDE McKAY Rebel Sojourner In the Harlem Renaissance A Biography By Wayne F. Cooper Louisiana State University Press. 441 pp. $29.95
IF THE Harlem Renaissance was begun as a well-financed race-relations stratagem by an interracial elite, it was soon in deep trouble with the moody and scrappy artists and writers it had carefully assembled and encouraged in order to prove to mainstream America how bright and well-behaved were the best and brightest in black America. None of the writers gave more trouble than the subject of Wayne Cooper's richly-researched, entertaining and informative biography. The cliche' about paranoiacs having real enemies might well have been its summary sentence, were it not for the felicity that Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance is virtually unmarred by cliche's. This is the first full-fledged life-and-times of McKay, and Cooper has admirably recreated the peripatetic, Jamaican-born poet-novelist who is one of the minor geniuses of early 20th-century American letters.
Mentored in Jamaica by an eccentric British patron who encouraged the dialect poetry that made portions of Contsab Ballads (1912) a genre breakthrough, and taken up in New York by literary patrons as diverse as Frank Harris, Van Wyck Brooks, James Weldon Johnson and Max Eastman, McKay was critically acclaimed for his Harlem Shadows (1922), one of the first volumes of published poetry by a black in America since Paul Laurence Dunbar. Uneasy co-editorship with doctrinaire Mike Gold of Liberator, voice of the left, followed, the discerning McKay prevailing upon Gold to publish the unknown e.e. cummings. Popular in Greenwich Village and the toast of Harlem, McKay abruptly sailed away in 1922 to Soviet Russia, all ideological paradox and neurotic complexity.
The Russians were taken with McKay as the personification of the black proletariat. Characteristically, this former Garveyite sympathizer quickly tired of Soviet adulation and doctrinal orthodoxy, which was hardly surprising, McKay having once imagined "communism liberating millions of city folk to go back to the land." He became an American citizen in the last years of a life most of whose creative years were spent in cantankerous, and usually impecunious, self-exile in Europe and North Africa. His upper-crust peasant background inclined him to dismiss black leadership in America as hopelessly conservative, philistine and color-conscious, yet his poem "If We Must Die," which appeared in the Red Summer of 1919, instantly became the catechism of that class of people. Home to Harlem (1928), his best-selling first novel ("a real proletarian novel," McKay boasted), was written in Marseilles and, as the high-minded W.E.B. Du Bois snappishly decreed, was deemed to traduce the social and ethical essence of the NAACP- and Urban League-launched Renaissance. McKay became a Catholic, over the friendly protests of Max Eastman, and died in Chicago in 1948.
HE WAS PROBABLY not a great poet, but he was, at his best, as good as his Lost Generation contemporary, Hart Crane. The religious "St. Isaac's Church, Petrograd" (which the author barely mentions), composed, curiously, within hours of "Petrograd: May Day, 1923," a poem extolling the new Soviet order, is magnificent by any measure. He was also a model for the younger and greater Langston Hughes (who once wrote McKay "for me you are the one and only"); Hughes' splendid, revolutionary, "The Weary Blues" (1925) is unimaginable without the image-rich, street-life examples in Harlem Shadows of "Harlem Dancer" and "Tropics in New York." Cooper the historian rather inclines to leave final literary assessment of McKay to others. He might, nevertheless, have been judgmentally bolder about the three uneven, Zolaesque novels.
Those gonadal archetypes peopling Home to Harlem and Banjo (1929), novels in which blacks who strive to come to terms culturally with Western civilization are dismissed as pitiable, raise nonparochial issues transcending McKay's reasonable Caribbean mistrust of the Harlem "Niggerati" (Zora Neale Hurston's infamous neologism) or of that group's understandable chauvinist impatience with him. McKay himself addressed the larger identity problem in the last novel, Banana Bottom (1933), creating there a Jamaican character vigorously at home in what the author supposed was the essential ethos of Africa and Europe.
This generally fascinating biography is particularly sensitive and illuminating when it draws upon the significance of McKay's bisexuality to his passive-aggressive behavior, the writer's need for strong figures whose counsel and approval he desperately sought, only furiously to renounce. After his 1934 return to America with health undermined and misanthropy ascendant, McKay's friends, black and white, found his care and feeding an increasingly grim obligation. But there were two final, creative bursts: the valuable autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937) and the sociological expose', Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). Leopold Senghor recognized McKay as "the veritable inventor of Negritude." Alain Locke, Howard University's deadly don, speaking for NAACP and Urban League grandees who had repeatedly helped with money and influence, pronounced solemnly: McKay "stands to date the enfant terrible of the Negro Renaissance, where with a little loyalty and consistency he might have been at least its Villon and perhaps its Voltaire." In September 1971, Cooper tell us, Time noted that rioting inmates of Attica prison were reading a poem "by an unknown prisoner, crude but touching in its would-be heroic style, entitled 'If We Must Die'." Claude McKay would have felt that he was finally appreciated. ::
David Levering Lewis, author of "When Harlem Was in Vogue," teaches history at Rutgers University.