Gibbons, Reginald, and Terence Des Pres, eds. Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Stern, Frederick C., ed. The Revolutionary Poet in the United States: The Poetry of Thomas McGrath. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988. Whitehead, Fred, ed. "The Dream Champ" North Dakota Quarterly 50 (fall 1982). ([Special issue devoted to Thomas McGrath]).
MCKAY, CLAUDE (1889-1948) No single poet, with the possible exception of Langston hughes, did more to bring attention to the literature of the harlem renaissance than poet and novelist Claude McKay. Despite his strong association with the movement, McKay insisted that his poems should speak to all people, not just to African Americans. This attitude and his attention to poetic craftsmanship evoke the tension between the demands of racial pride and intellectual autonomy that fueled the creative energies of his African-American contemporaries. While he later distanced himself from the Harlem literary scene, the independence, breadth, and scope of McKay's writings made him a crucial reference and influential figure for writers in the later Civil Rights movements.
McKay was born to relatively wealthy parents of Jamaica's peasant class. This almost middle-class status provided him with early intellectual mentors, including a schoolteacher older brother and an influential British folklorist, both of whom directed the budding poet's studies of classical and romantic literature and philosophy. After the 1912 publication of two volumes of juvenile poetry in Jamaica, McKay migrated to the United States, where he studied at both the Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State University until 1914. He followed his studies with a series of menial railway jobs that led him to New York and the publication of his 1922 volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows, which critics now hail as the first great literary achievement of the Harlem Renaissance (Barksdale 490). McKay used the earnings from this work to fund extensive travels throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Soviet Union, where he became a world symbol of the African-American literary left. As the vibrancy of the early Harlem Renaissance faded, so did McKay's poetic output. He ultimately resolved the internal struggles seen throughout his poetry through a 1944 conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Many of McKay's poems reflect nostalgically on the island life and folklore of Jamaica; however, he made his reputation with verse that unsparingly confronts the injustice and rage generated by race relations in the United States. Eschewing the free verse style favored by Hughes and other jazz-age poets, McKay reserved the elegant structure of the sonnet for his most militant ideas and images (see prosody and free verse).
In his most widely anthologized poem, the sonnet "If We Must Die" (1919), McKay elevates the African American's plight with a plea for nobility. The poem's central metaphor compares the African-American experience to fighting off a pack of dogs and calls for determined and noble resistance so that "even the monsters we defy / Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!" This rhetoric of resistance and human dignity makes McKay's message resonate as succeeding generations discover the power of his verse.
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