The years leading up to the publication of Harlem Shadows were full of fraught political as well as aesthetic dilemmas for Claude McKay. First, there was the matter of an artistic drought: after publishing two well-received and highly innovative books of poetry in Jamaica in 1912, for several years after arriving in the United States he published nothing at all.
Today, it looks a little like “life happened”: as his biographers describe it, McKay got married to a fellow Jamaican in New York City, but the marriage quickly fizzled. He tried a business venture in New York, which also went nowhere. And then he began a series of jobs, including especially a job as a porter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, which exposed him to various aspects of American life and labor. As McKay describes it, the experience was freeing; his life amongst the working people also helped shape McKay’s subsequent commitment to radical politics.
It was not until I was forced down among the rough body of the great serving class of Negroes that I got to know my Aframerica. I was perhaps then at the most impressionable adult age and the warm contact with my workmates, boys and girls, their spontaneous ways of acting on and living for the moment, the physical and sensuous delights, the loose freedom in contrast to the definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised—all served to feed the riotous sentiments smoldering in me and cut me finally adrift from the fixed moorings my mind had been led to respect, but to which my heart had never held. (Claude McKay, quoted in Cooper, 87)
Beginning in 1917, even as McKay continued to work on the railroad, that artistic drought ended, and he began to publish poems in American magazines, growing increasingly confident in the new voice and lyrical form he was developing. Alongside the 70 or so poems that McKay decided to include in Harlem Shadows, there are about 24 poems he published in various magazines during these years that he elected not to include in that volume. The vast majority of these are ‘political’ poems articulating a plainly Communist critique of labor relations, and in some cases a celebration of leftist revolution. The majority of these political poems were published in Leftist magazines such as The Liberator and Workers Dreadnought.
McKay’s reasons for excluding these poems from Harlem Shadows are not fully known; he did not address these writings at great length in his memoir, A Long Way From Home, and his personal correspondence from this period has not survived. However, it is not hard for a contemporary critic to speculate that McKay and his editors may have seen the tone and theme of these poems as too disparate from his other poems, and opted to exclude them in the interest of greater thematic coherence. It is also true that many of McKay’s most stridently revolutionary poems from 1920-1922 in particular were published under pseudonyms in Workers Dreadnought (“Hugh Hope” being the most frequent pseudonym). In wake of the mass deportation of Communists from the United States in the fall of 1919 and the arrest and imprisonment of British Communists, including many of McKay’s close friends and associates, in the fall of 1920, it is also quite likely that McKay (having returned to the U.S. in 1921) decided not to claim ownership of these poems as a matter of not exposing himself to legal trouble—including possible deportation.
Whatever McKay’s reason for excluding the political poetry from Harlem Shadows, the poems should be quite interesting to readers today. For one thing, several (though admittedly not all) of the political poems are written in a style that suggests strong intellectual overlap with McKay’s other works. We say this despite the consensus of earlier critics and biographers like Wayne Cooper, who dismissed the political poems as “proletariat doggerel” that was “clearly inferior to his best efforts” (Cooper 117). In fact, the best of these poems are much more than doggerel. Below, we’ll look closely at one particularly interesting example of a compelling political poem, “Joy in the Woods.”
In general, all of McKay’s poems from this period (including the poems in Harlem Shadows) reflect a set of conscious stylistic choices and an evolution from the aesthetic mode he had used earlier in his career. Writing in British and American magazines, McKay dropped the Jamaican patois he had used in Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica in favor of standard written English; he also committed to conventional poetic rhyme and meter – and the sonnet form – a move that seemed anachronistic to some of his more experimental contemporaries. Even at the moment of the publication of Harlem Shadows, McKay was clearly aware that his aesthetic choice represented a rejection of the rapidly proliferating modernist preference for free verse.
He describes and defends this choice in the Author’s Word he elected to write for Harlem Shadows:
Consequently, although very conscious of the new criticisms and trends in poetry, to which I am keenly responsive and receptive, I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods. I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist nor a modernist. My intellect is not scientific enough to range me on the side of either; nor is my knowledge wide enough for me to specialize in any school. (McKay, “Author’s Word,” Harlem Shadows. See the full Author’s Word here.)
These words mark a pretty compelling defense of McKay’s choice to use a conservative form and language in which to express his feelings of righteous anger at the various forms of oppression he witnessed in both the United States and England in those years. The constraints McKay placed on himself (i.e., “the older traditions” he references) in writing poems like “America” and “The Lynching” in sonnet form may have led him to express himself more precisely than his “lawless and revolutionary passions and moods” otherwise might have dictated. And the poems are the more powerful and memorable for it.
A close look at the timeline of McKay’s publications in this period demonstrates just how unusual McKay’s path to the publication of Harlem Shadows actually was. On the one hand, in the late 1910s McKay was finding some success in these years in mainstream American publications such as Pearson’s and The Liberator, in the mainstream (i.e., white-dominated) little magazine, Seven Arts; in England, he published in Cambridge Magazine. Several of the poems for which McKay is best known today were published in this period and they focus on racial oppression and the struggle of the black community for survival and dignity in the face of violent oppression. However, McKay also wrote and published poetry that we could today recognize as conventional love lyrics (many of these describe love objects of indeterminate gender and we can infer from what we know of McKay’s biography that they are about men).
In the spring of 1920, even as he was intensely involved with the British revolutionary left, McKay was also working closely with an editor named C.K. Ogden to produce a largely apolitical collection of twenty poems for Cambridge Magazine (admittedly, some poems dealing with race-relations, including “The Lynching,” were in fact included in this sequence of poems). To the Cambridge Magazine poems he would add a few new entries, and publish, in the fall of 1920, a collection of poems called Spring in New Hampshire that largely consisted of poems about nature, forbidden love, migration, and American race-relations—with no mention of proletarian revolution anywhere in the mix.
Biographer Wayne Cooper suggests that McKay’s more “literary” editors (i.e., Ogden) in England discouraged him from including more radical or revolutionary writing, whether that radicalism was oriented towards calling out entrenched English and American racism or the class struggle. (And yes, “The Lynching” – which deals with racism in the far-away American South – would have been acceptable to Cambridge Magazine, but probably not poems addressing forms of systemic oppression that were closer to home.)
As a young and very marginalized writer, it’s quite easy to see how McKay found the idea of acceptance in a prestigious venue like Cambridge Magazine attractive. While he was writing and publishing some of the aggressively political material of his career in Workers Dreadnought, he was also presenting himself as a new “Negro Poet” to the literary establishment. The established editors (I.A. Richards and Max Eastman) who wrote prefaces for McKay’s two volumes of poetry published in 1920 and 1922 were especially invested in marking McKay’s writing as “universal”:
And it should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it—they are gentle, simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears—yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind. There is no special or exotic kind of merit in them, no quality that demands a transmutation of our own natures to perceive. (Max Eastman, Preface to Harlem Shadows, 1922)
As the “first black poet” to be published in many of the white-dominated venues that accepted him, McKay was presented as a representative of the experiences of his race. But the particularities of McKay’s experiences and identity – as an immigrant, as a gay man, and as a leftist activist – would not have fit the universalist picture Eastman was attempting to paint.
Let us take a brief look at an example of political poetry that McKay published just around the time he was developing the sequence of poems for Cambridge Magazine (published in June 1920), but which would be excluded from that collection as well as Spring in New Hampshire and Harlem Shadows.
Joy in the Woods (published in Workers Dreadnought in April 1920)
There is joy in the woods just now,
The leaves are whispers of song,
And the birds make mirth on the bough
And music the whole day long.
And God! To dwell in the town
In these springlike summer days,
On my brow an unfading frown
And hate in my heart always—
A machine out of gear, aye, tired,
Yet forced to go on—for I’m hired.
Just forced to go on through fear,
For every day I must eat
And find ugly clothes to wear,
And bad shoes to hurt my feet
And a shelter for work-drugged sleep!
A mere drudge! but what can one do?
A man that’s a man cannot weep!
Suicide? A quitter? Oh, no!
But a slave should never grow tired,
Whom the masters have kindly hired.
But oh! For the woods, the flowers
Of natural, sweet perfume,
The heartening, summer shows
And the smiling shrubs in bloom,
Dust-free, dew-tinted at morn,
The fresh and life-giving air,
The billowing waves of corn
And the birds’ notes rich and clear: —
For a man-machine toil-tired
May crave beauty too—though he’s hired.
I find this 1920 poem of McKay’s particularly helpful in bridging the apparent gap between McKay’s political poems and the poems McKay included in Spring in New Hampshire, especially the title poem, which shares with “Joy in the Woods” a distinct sense of longing for a natural beauty that is denied to the speaker. While the reason for that denial is never specified in the poem “Spring in New Hampshire,” in “Joy in the Woods” the speaker identifies himself repeatedly as a “hired” man, who must work for wages in town rather than enjoy the freedom and sensory pleasures of spring in the countryside. The sense of yearning expressed in the final couplet (“For a man-machine toil-tired / May crave beauty too – though he’s hired.”) speaks powerfully to a contradiction that addresses the competing thematic interests McKay was struggling with throughout this period. Despite his commitment to the workers and to revolution, McKay also “craved beauty” – and yet he could not find a way to reconcile these competing interests in the volumes of poetry he published in 1920 or 1922. As a result, fine poems like “Joy in the Woods” were effectively inaccessible to readers for generations – until recent editors have unearthed them.
To his credit, McKay’s most important American editor in this period, Frank Norris, found at least some aspects the British editorial conservatism unacceptable. What we can clearly see, in the evolution of Spring in New Hampshire (published in London in 1920) into Harlem Shadows (published in New York in 1922, on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance), is the reinsertion of Mckay’s most defiant poems dealing specifically with race (especially, “If We Must Die”)—but not his poems dealing with class oppression, labor relations, or revolution. (It is not known what Norris thought about McKay’s Communist poetry – or if he even knew of it.) Both the various differential editorial influences we have been discussing and McKay’s repeated experiences of displacement can be seen in the poems in the final product that is Harlem Shadows.