A Columbia graduate student discovered and authenticated a previously unknown manuscript by Claude McKay, a poet and intergal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. (McKay is best known for his poetry and his novel The Negroes in America.) The manuscript, a satirical novel set in 1936 entitled 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 archive by Jean-Christophe Cloutier.
In 2009, Cloutier discovered the McKay manuscript while working in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library going through an archive of materials belonging to Samuel Roth, an American bookseller, writer, and publisher who became best known as the plaintiff in Roth v. United States, a landmark Supreme Court case that redefined obscene material. The 300-page manuscript was bound between cardboard-like covers that listed the novel’s title and McKay’s name. Cloutier also found two letters from McKay to Roth about the possibility of ghostwriting a novel (not Amiable).
The connection between Roth and McKay was previously unknown, and Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, Cloutier’s dissertation adviser and an expert in black literature, had to do a bit of literary sleuthing to authenticate the manuscript. It passed the first test: thematic elements in the novel, like Communism and labor strikes in Harlem, echoed other writings by McKay, and the term “Aframerican”, which McKay used to denote black people in the Western Hemisphere, was employed. As booksellers and scholars know, it’s at this point where the real research begins. Cloutier and Edwards visited the special collections libraries of a number of major institutions around the country and were able to amass “a mountain of archival and circumstantial evidence pointing to McKay’s authorship.”
The “irrefutable evidence” comes from correspondence between McKay and Max Eastman, a friend of McKay’s who was also a writer and political activist. “Eastman directly quotes from the novel,” Coultier said. “McKay sent him pages, all from the summer of 1941 and a bit later.”
For a number of reasons, academics consider this find “scholarly gold”. Firstly, it obviously expands McKay’s canon and offers insights into his later work. Secondly, and of equal if not greater importance, it allows scholars a look at black life in the 1930s, of which there is far less documentation than during the Renaissance in the 1920s.
“I cannot think of another novel that gives us such a rich and multilayered portrayal of black life,” Edwards said. “There are scenes with artists in salons, in nightclubs, in queer nightclubs. It has almost a documentary aspect.” Edwards goes on to say that he believed this manuscript will eventually be considered “the key political novel of the black intellectual life in New York in the late 1930s.” He explained that in the novel McKay represents Communists as amiable but with big teeth, but in the end they end up being “wol[ves] in sheep’s clothing.”
New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found [NY Times]