Claude McKay : a black poet's struggle for identity /

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Main Author: Tillery, Tyrone, 1946-
Format: Book
Published: Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, c1992.
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Review by Booklist Review

"The Negro Renaissance movement in America seems a hopeless mess to me" were the cynical words of one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay--words that exemplify his critical and ambivalent attitudes toward much of black America life. As a black Jamaican expatriate who lived in Harlem, briefly in the Soviet Union, and in Europe, McKay was an international intellectual who encountered a welter of complex racial problems, the most deleterious and overwhelming being "living in a world dominated by color prejudice." This world created an extraordinary, enigmatic writer whose life was "the extreme manifestation" of the tragedy of American racial practices. In his biography, Tillery provides evenhanded psychological insights into the poet's life while examining the larger problems that confronted most black intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s. Tillery's work is an honest look at both interracial and intraracial relationships. His effort looms as definitive and attempts to make sense of the "ambiguous social and cultural position of the black artist . . . of the early twentieth century." An important acquisition for all African American collections. ~--Doyle Quiggle

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Born in Clarendon Parish in Jamaica, poet and novelist Claude McKay (1890-1948) wrote in dialect and by 1912, when he left for the U.S., was known as ``the Robert Burns of Jamaica.'' In his depiction of McKay's stern father and nurturing mother, Tillery, history professor at Wayne State University, demonstrates the contradictions that were to become a permanent part of McKay's life. The book chronicles McKay's move to New York City, the failure of his marriage and of a business venture, the growing radicalism that would culminate in his trip in 1922 to Russia, and his return to become part of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1928 he wrote Home to Harlem , a novel (the first by a black to become a bestseller) illustrating his own--and those of other black artist and radicals--class, race and artistic struggles. McKay's later renunciation of communism and his conversion to Catholicism, his battle with syphilis and his death in Chicago of heart failure are detailed with sensitivity in this comprehensive critical biography. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

McKay, known as a pioneer of Jamaican dialect poetry, left his native Jamaica in 1912 to seek wider recognition in the United States. As a West Indian, McKay was overwhelmed by racism: whites stereotyped him and less-educated black Americans resented him. As an artist, he was further frustrated to find a market solely interested in poetry with racial themes. His poem ``If We Must Die'' established him as a voice for his race, but McKay wanted to write on universal themes and be recognized as a poet, not just a black poet. This critical biography chronicles McKay's growing radicalism; his embrace of communism, followed by a trip to Russia; and his denunciation of communism, after which he returned to New York and became a part of the Harlem Renaissance. Tillery performs a commendable task of delving into McKay's inner conflicts and sorting through the contradictions of a complex man who ``had a tendency to rewrite his own history.'' For scholarly collections.-- Joanne Snapp, Virginia Commonwealth Univ., Richmond (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

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.

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