American Literature Claude McKay
Myriam Chancy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0104


Claude McKay (b. 1889–d. 1948), born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, on 15 September 1889 to Jamaican farmers, proved to have a precocious intellect from an early age. From age six he was placed with his older brother, an elementary school teacher, Uriah Theophilus, from whom he received a classic education in British letters. He was also mentored by a British folklorist, Walter Jekyll, who encouraged McKay to write in Jamaican vernacular. Jekyll would also be first of many patrons and was responsible for helping to produce McKay’s first book of poetry, Songs of Jamaica (1909), published when McKay was just twenty years old. Three years later, in 1912, the same year McKay left for the United States, he published another book of poetry, Constab Ballads, focusing primarily on the plight of urban Jamaicans in Kingston. As a teenager, he had apprenticed as a furniture maker in the Parish of St. Ann before ultimately becoming a constable in the Jamaican police force in Kingston. Disheartened by the racism he witnessed in Kingston, and compelled by the peripatetic spirit that would define his adult life, he moved to the United States to study agronomy at the Tuskegee Institute but quickly moved on to Kansas State College, where he studied for two years. Arriving in New York in 1914, McKay became integrated both into the literary scene and the political radical Left of its working classes. He became a close friend of Max Eastman, who published McKay’s most famous poem, “If We Must Die,” in the pages of The Liberator in 1919; McKay eventually became an editor of The Liberator. Coinciding with these first publications and McKay’s distaste for American racial and class politics were travels throughout Europe and North Africa, which lasted from 1919 to 1934. During this period of movement, McKay published his major works: his first US poetry collection, Harlem Shadows (1922), and his first novel, Home to Harlem (1928), followed by the novels Banjo (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933) and the short stories in Gingertown (1932). When he returned to Harlem in 1934, he published two final works: the memoir A Long Way from Home (1937) and the nonfiction Harlem, Negro Metropolis (1940). In 1940 McKay also became an American citizen, followed by his conversion, in 1944, to the Roman Catholic faith. He died in 1948 in virtual poverty.

General Overviews

There are no truly comprehensive reference works, other than useful bibliographic reference material, on Claude McKay, owing to the complexity of understanding his international and transnational perspectives, which have only more recently come into focus for McKay scholars, as well as the growing but more recent analyses of McKay from queer perspectives. Adding to the difficulty of comprehensive studies are the posthumous discoveries of previously unknown works in the American context, notably the reeditions of two works originally written in English but commissioned by the Soviet Union State Press; these works became available in English only in the 1970s and were reconstructed from the originally published Russian translation. More recently, another unpublished manuscript by McKay was discovered by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a doctoral candidate who discovered the manuscript in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University in 2009; the manuscript has since been authenticated as genuine. McKay can thus be included in a variety of canons, and it is clear that his own oeuvre is incomplete. Most useful reference works, then, are those that include McKay in larger, comprehensive studies of the Harlem Renaissance or the black literary tradition. The most recent study in this regard would be Gates and Jarrett 2007, a compendium on writers of the Reconstruction and Harlem Renaissance periods, while Bone 1965, an earlier survey of the black novel (1958), may be useful for understanding the place of McKay’s prose in the black literary tradition. Earlier entries in encyclopedic dictionaries may also be useful to the novice, while the review essay in Harris 2009 provides an overview of early-21st-century advancements in McKay studies. Several general, literary encyclopedias also list abbreviated notes and short biographic essays on McKay, with general bibliographic references. For those interested primarily in McKay’s poetry, several anthologies of collected or selected works were published over the years, after his death, and are listed separately; these serve as excellent reference points for those wanting to see which of McKay’s poems were considered worthy of collection, but also testify to his enduring influence as a modernist poet.

  • Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. Yale Publications in American Studies 3. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.

    New critical reading of the tradition of the African American novel, from the first, Clotel, by Williams Well Brown (published in 1853), to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man of 1952. Bone’s was the long-standing critical reference for the black novel for many decades. Within the study, Bone includes McKay’s Home to Harlem. Reprinted as recently as 1987.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Gene Andrew Jarrett, eds. The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

    Traces the evolution of the “new negro” from the period of the Reconstruction to the end of the Harlem Renaissance, retracing how major authors from each period contributed to a new definition of blackness in the American context. Excerpts from the writings of authors from W. E. B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston are provided, followed by bibliographic reference notes.

  • Harris, Laura A. “‘What’s in a Name?’ That Which We Call Brilliance by Any Other Name Would Read as Festus Claudius McKay.” Radical History Review 2009.103 (2009): 236–243.

    DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2008-045

    A review of early-21st-century texts on McKay, reconsidering his place in the Harlem Renaissance from internationalist and queer perspectives.

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