New York Harcourt Brace 1922

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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Claude McKay's 1922 Harlem Shadows was a pioneer volume of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, appearing before the first books by Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Sterling Brown. When he appeared prominently in Alain Locke's important anthology The New Negro in 1925, McKay was a good deal older than most of the other poets represented. And yet the 1922 volume is a curious one to hold such a position in the vanguard. McKay's patrons back in his native Jamaica, where he published his first two volumes of verse, and in New York, were white, and Harlem shadows was published by a white publisher. McKay had spent much of the two years prior to its publication in London, and he left the United States within months of its appearance and did not return for 12 years. He published no further books of poetry, his interests turning to prose fiction, essays, and autobiography. Harlem Shadows is not formally innovative, as the work of Toomer and Hughes is, and relatively few of its poems are about Harlem. However, in this volume McKay treated racial themes with a militancy that would rarely be matched until the 1960s, writing on such subjects as interracial love, racial injustice, prejudice, and lynching. The themes are modern: alienation, anger, and rebellion. The impact of the volume, coupled with McKay's editorial position on the radical journal The Liberator, made him for a period an influential figure in the developing movements around Harlem. The volume marked an important advance from the dialect poetry of Paul Dunbar. But, as Melvin Tolson pointed out in reviewing McKay's posthumously published Selected Poems in 1954, the impact was in the poems' content, not their largely conventional form.

The 74 poems in Harlem Shadows represent those McKay considered his best since his arrival in the United States in 1912. The book contains almost all of the poems from his 1920 volume Spring in New Hampshire. Harlem Shadows opens with two introductions. The first is by Max Eastman, editor of The Liberator, where McKay served in 1922 as an associate editor. Eastman finds in McKay's poetry "the first significant expression of [the black] race in poetry." Eastman's introduction assaults racial prejudice and the scientific pretensions of its adherents, although his own rhetoric reflects some of the patronizing primitivism of the decade. McKay's years growing up in Jamaica are "the happy tropic life of play and affection" before they become shadowed by the oppression of the British colonial power, an oppression that McKay also found when he came to the United States. Eastman's own taste in poetry emerges as a preference for conventional lyrics, and by this standard he finds "occasional lapses of quality" and "one or two . . . rhythms I confess I am not able to apprehend at all" in the volume. McKay's "Author's Word" defends his use of formal verse, arguing that, although the speech of his "childhood and early youth was the Jamaica Negro dialect," the language that he was taught to read and write was "England's English." McKay's first two books had included dialect, but in Harlem Shadows he argues that within what in effect are the conventions of Victorian verse, and with the liberal use of archaic diction, his "instinct" and "moods" can achieve "directness, truthfulness and naturalness of expression instead of an enameled originality." The result can sometimes be curious, as in "One Year After," where a poem extolling passionate freedom, "gales of tropic fury," "no rigid road," and a "zest of life" that "exceeds the bound of laws," is written in verse with only a minimally varied rhyme scheme. The subject matter of this poem, however, interracial love and the poet's ambivalent guilt about the betrayal of his blackness, points to the importance of the volume as a bold expression of subjects previously treated rarely if at all by black poets.

The poems in Harlem Shadows fall into four broad categories: nostalgia for Jamaica and a consequent ambivalence about the United States, racial themes, poems on working-class life, and - in the volume's final 20 pages or so - love poems. Most of the poems that made the greatest impact, and which are most admired today, fall into the first two categories. An early example of one of the significant poems in the volume is the sonnet "America," showing McKay's fascination and disgust with "this cultured hell," and ending with a vision of its "granite wonders . . . / sinking in the sand." "The Tropics in New York" is a poem of exile in the vein of Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." The title poem sees Harlem prostitutes as representing "my fallen race," but a more frequently anthologized poem, "The Harlem Dancer," is a less generalized portrait and captures the ambivalence of the narrator's own involvement with the dancer's oppression.

The poems on black working-class routine, some of them describing jobs that McKay himself held, include "Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table," "On the Road," and "Dawn in New York." In the first-named poem the carefree singing of the title character is soon to be stopped "by clamouring / Of hungry and importunate palefaces." The railcar waiters of "On the Road" finish the journey "weary, listless, glum" and find relief in spending "their tips on harlots, cards, and rum." The narrator of "The Tired Worker" greets the dawn with exhausted dread for its pulling him out of the brief escape offered by sleep.

McKay's angriest poems are explicitly about racial violence and oppression. "The White City" takes a different tone towards the city than does "America," expressing a "life-long hate" of the "white world's hell" to which he finds himself tied by both fascination and need. The sonnet "Enslaved" again describes its driving emotion as "hate," and calls upon "the avenging angel to consume / The white man's world of wonders utterly." "Outcast," again a sonnet, paints the picture of a double exile, separated from "the dim regions whence my fathers came," and "a thing apart" in a world dominated by "the white man's menace." That "menace" finds full expression in "The Lynching," which ends with "little lads" dancing with glee around the burned, swaying body, "lynchers that were to be" in a future offering no hope of change. "Exhortation: Summer, 1919" is a demand for "Africa" to "awake!" and force a change, while "If We Must Die" - for many years McKay's best-known poem - calls for "fighting back!" even in the face of impossible odds.

Recent scholarship has shown a resurgence of interest in McKay's poetry as well as his prose work. Such attention has helped the importance of his transitional role within the Harlem movements of the early 1920s to be acknowledged, while at the same time recognizing the achievement of his best work on its own terms.

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