As much a study of self-defeat as of a struggle for survival, this is a well-documented and cautious biography of a tough,...


CLAUDE McKAY: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity

As much a study of self-defeat as of a struggle for survival, this is a well-documented and cautious biography of a tough, angry, and mercurial Jamaican writer during the interwar years in America. It reveals as much about the complexity and alienation of New York intellectuals and creative artists in general as it does about McKay and the black writers he ultimately chose not to be identified with. Born in 1890, McKay (d. 1948) left Jamaica at age 25 to improve himself, bearing the British culture and more liberal racial attitudes of the West Indies into the economic turmoil and bigotry of early 20th-century America. A self-described ""truant by nature,"" he attended college briefly, then wandered into Harlem during the Renaissance, a period of creativity idealizing black ethnic, especially African, heritage. McKay married and abandoned his pregnant wife (never seeing his daughter), and became associated, successively, with black radical, socialist, and communist groups that led him in 1922 to visit Russia. Ultimately, he came to reject all these groups, finding refuge in the Catholic Church, where he became an advisor on racial issues to a Chicago bishop. The first black to write a bestseller (Home at Harlem, 1928), McKay found his other novels, short stories, poetry, and autobiography failing to achieve any acclaim. As a black, a political radical, and a writer, earning a living was a major problem: For a time he edited literary magazines, but mostly he depended on friends, foundations, and various groups he became affiliated with, in one poignant period during the Depression working in a Connecticut labor camp. Not a sympathetic biography, but, given his ""list of hates"" (including ""light-skinned blacks""), McKay was not a very likable man--often blaming others, Tillery (History/Wayne State Univ.) explains, for the poor choices he made in life. Elusive, always escaping from definitions and roles, McKay even escaped his own funeral: The train carrying his body was delayed, arriving four hours after the ceremony.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1992


Page Count: 224

Publisher: Univ. of Massachusetts Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1991