Detective Work Authenticates Novel by Harlem Renaissance Writer Claude McKay

Nick Obourn
October 18, 2012

As an intern in Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML), Jean-Christophe Cloutier was used to the silence. But he could barely contain himself the day he stumbled on what appeared to be a previously unknown manuscript by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay in the archives of another writer.

“There was a kind of inner tremor of excitement but also of disbelief,” said Cloutier, a Ph.D. candidate in English literature. “The archive is such a quiet place it simply feels inappropriate to cry out or get agitated in any way. So it was a silent moment on the outside, but deafening with possibilities on the inside.”

Cloutier was cataloging the archives of publisher and writer Samuel Roth, who is perhaps best known for publishing unauthorized editions of James Joyce’s "Ulysses" and D.H. Lawrence’s "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" in America (and spending a year in prison on charges of distributing pornography). He was the appellant in "Roth v. United States," a 1957 U.S. Supreme Court case that strengthened constitutional protection of obscene material.

The manuscript, which bears McKay’s name and is titled "Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem," was in a cheap black binder with a publisher’s note in Roth’s hand. Elsewhere in the archive Cloutier found papers related to a ghostwriting project that Roth wanted McKay to handle. Cloutier got in touch with English Professor Brent Edwards, whose 2003 book "The Practice of Diaspora" contains a chapter on McKay. The ghostwritten book, if it ever existed, has never surfaced, but correspondence between McKay and Roth suggested to Edwards that Cloutier was on to something big.

Both men read the manuscript in search of more clues. It quickly became clear that the subject matter matched McKay’s interests. The novel focuses on political activism in Harlem during the 1935-1936 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, a hot topic among African Americans for whom Ethiopia and its leader Emperor Haile Selassie were a source of black nationalist pride. The Jamaican-born McKay, whose 1928 novel "Home to Harlem" was the first bestseller by a black writer in the United States, often used the clash of cultures as a theme in his work.

There were other clues, too, such as frequent use of the term Aframerican, a signature McKay-ism for African American. And handwritten corrections in the text were consistent with those in other McKay texts.

Verification required piecing together information from various archives. Edwards and Cloutier combed through Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which handles McKay’s estate. There they found correspondence in which McKay refers to the novel.

A search of Syracuse University’s archives of E.P. Dutton, the publisher of "McKay’s Harlem: Negro Metropolis," revealed weekly advances of $25 to McKay for a novel that may have been called "God’s Black Sheep," which resembles the unpublished manuscript’s subtitle. Cloutier and Edwards hypothesize that Dutton might have rejected McKay’s novel before it was submitted to Roth.

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library offered the most concrete clue: a letter to McKay from socialist magazine editor, writer and Leon Trotsky translator Max Eastman, directly quoting lines from the book.

Cloutier was working in RBML as part of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation internship that trains graduate students in archival science. “A key piece of our strategy was bringing the skills and interests of talented graduate students to bear on a broad range of unprocessed material,” said Michael Ryan, director of the RBML—a plan that has clearly paid off.

For his part, Cloutier was not only thrilled with the discovery but also noted with satisfaction that the reappearance of the manuscript seems to explain archival letters that had, until now, only pointed to a mysterious McKay novel. “It’s only because we have this novel that all these letters have significance and meaning. It makes the whole history come alive,” he said.

Cloutier and Edwards, whose discovery of the McKay manuscript was recently featured on the front page of the "New York Times" Arts section are now working on an introduction to accompany the first edition of "Amiable with Big Teeth," which will offer proof of the novel’s authenticity and explore McKay’s life at the time he was writing the book.