Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): A Digital Collection

Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1912-1922)

Welcome to Claude McKay's Early Poetry: a Digital Collection. This site began as a collaborative WordPress project put together by students in Amardeep Singh and Ed Whitley’s Introduction to the Digital Humanities (Fall 2015) graduate seminar, based on an idea developed by Amardeep Singh (see detailed notes regarding the original assignment here). The site has evolved since fall 2015 and been reworked for the Scalar platform; it now offers a digital edition of all of McKay’s early poems, including Songs of Jamaica, Constab Ballads, Spring in New Hampshire, and Harlem Shadows, as well as political poetry published in various Jamaican, British, and American magazines from the 1910s and 20s not included in those volumes. 

The larger aim is to use Scalar's visualization techniques to show relationships between the poems McKay published from his early years in Jamaica through 1922 that might not be otherwise apparent. While biographers and critics have suggested a strong divide between McKay's more aesthetically-ambitious poetry and his more activist writing, this site shows that the two facets of McKay's literary output overlapped to a considerable degree. Moreover, while there is a clear change in voice and style after he moves to the U.S., the concerns of his early Jamaican poetry in collections like Constab Ballads and Songs from Jamaica, overlap with the themes of his later work more than has been generally acknowledged. 

While the digital editions of Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems and Harlem Shadows are complete, we have made the intentional decision not to present these as definitive scholarly digital editions. For readers looking for such an edition, we would highly recommend Chris Forster and Roopika Risam's Harlem Shadows project. In addition to the primary text, their edition contains a great deal of helpful supplementary material, including reviews and textual variants. A key goal of this project is to use semantic tags to demonstrate the relationships between McKay's early poems in the context of his personal experience: 1) as a migrant nostalgic for his childhood life in rural Jamaica, 2) as a person with radical political beliefs, 3) as a gay man, and 4) as a minority poet aspiring to acceptance and critical respect in the overwhelmingly white literary culture of Anglo-American modernism. 

(See a short interpretation of the above diagram by Amardeep Singh here.)

Claude McKay
is an unsung poet of the Harlem Renaissance and African diaspora, whose works had a broad audience in his day. As an accessible and highly readable poet writing about themes that resonate, we believe that he could be better known even today. We have tagged poems thematically to guide readers to works they may be particularly interested in, including especially poems that deal with issues of race, class/class warfare, gender, and sexuality. (Use the VISUALIZATION>TAG menu on the upper left corner of the screen to access this feature.) Several short, contextual essays place McKay’s work in both historical and contemporary contexts, and we also offer interpretations of select poems and educational materials intended for readers interested in doing further research about McKay. Since we believe that literature can be a powerful tool for imagining a more socially just world, we are committed to making McKay’s work accessible to the public. Thus we have aimed for simplicity of design; we hope this version of Claude McKay's early poetry will bridge diverse groups of people and spark conversations around McKay’s legacy.

This project is driven in part by an interest in considering Digital Humanities methods in relation to social justice. Approaching the Digital Humanities from a framework of literature and social justice encourages us to consider the contributions of marginalized writers and to ask how the study of literature and literary history bears upon our understanding of contemporary social and political contexts. We have created this site as both a digital humanities experiment and a social justice intervention; we are invested both in exploring and advocating for McKay and for aspects of his writing—especially along themes of race, class, and sexuality—that have historically not received the greatest focus from previous generations of McKay scholars. McKay's poetry is not only stunningly beautiful, but speaks to continued problems of racism/white supremacy and the exploitation of workers that persists in the United States today.

--Amardeep Singh, Site Editor

--With editorial contributions from: Kyle Brett, Joanna Grim, Jenna Casciano, Heather Simoneau, Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno, Alex Thompson, and Brenda Martinez 
Department of English
Lehigh University
Contact: amardeep AT gmail DOT com
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