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Race, Capitalism, and the Third-Sex Ideal: Claude McKay's Home to Harlem and the Legacy of Edward Carpenter

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 48, Number 4, Winter 2002
pp. 825-857 | 10.1353/mfs.2002.0077

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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.4 (2002) 825-857



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Race, Capitalism, and the Third-sex Ideal:
Claude Mckay's Home to Harlem and the Legacy of Edward Carpenter

Michael Maiwald


Though generally regarded as one of the first African-American bestsellers—achieving five printings in fewer than six months and selling over 50,000 copies—Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928) has not received the enthusiastic reception into the African-American canon that its prominent place in literary history should merit. Most critics have either ignored or rejected it, while almost none have accorded it a major position in the lineage of African-American cultural expression. 1 To a large extent, this continued critical neglect is related to the initial charge that the novel was an example of white-authorized racism rather than authentic black cultural expression. In particular, Home to Harlem was thought to be derivative of Carl Van Vechten's sensationalistic depiction of Harlem, Nigger Heaven (1926), a commercially successful work that many black critics felt had exploited white stereotypes of black life. Subsequent evaluations of Home to Harlem have all offered subtle [End Page 825] variations on the extent of McKay's culpability, but almost none have questioned the assumption that his novel must be read solely in terms of its chronological precursor. 2

These critical judgments ignore the fact that McKay's autobiography offers a convincing account to the contrary: Home to Harlem evolved from one of his own short stories, and McKay didn't see Van Vechten's notorious novel until the spring of 1927, by which time his own book was almost complete. 3 While the sales of his novel benefited from its association with its popular predecessor, McKay did not simply mimic or replicate—in a calculated ploy for popular success and financial independence—a formula that had been established by Van Vechten. Instead, the critical project embedded in Home to Harlem can best be understood by examining the impact of Edward Carpenter, an English utopian Socialist, upon McKay's complex views concerning the relationship between gender identity, class position, and the course of American civilization. While Carpenter is not explicitly referenced in the novel, his theories influenced McKay's fiction, and they allow us to uncover McKay's innovative attempt at positioning a specific form of working-class masculinity and sentimental homosexuality within the black community. I propose to read McKay in light of ideas from Carpenter to which McKay was exposed through Walter Jekyll, his early mentor and patron in Jamaica. I will demonstrate how McKay in Home to Harlem engages in a critique of capitalism and its role in maintaining racial hierarchies by adopting Carpenter's form of radicalism, which focuses on the relationship between the gendered self and the possibility of widespread social change. McKay derived much of his political understanding of masculine identity from Carpenter's theorization of the relationship between gender identities and socioeconomic structures, and he used this theoretical framework for locating a powerful political interface between black proletarian life and what he saw as a homosexual social vanguard. By reading McKay through Carpenter, we find an interpretive method that allows us to reconsider the presence, meaning, and function of primitivist elements in Home to Harlem and enables us instead to investigate this novel's exploration of how gender constitutes the critical means through which power relations are both experienced and contested in the world.

W. E. B. Du Bois's damning judgment of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem in his Crisis magazine editorial review—"Reading it makes me [End Page 826] want to take a bath" (202)—became the most famous articulation of the standard line that the black press would take on McKay's novel. In his unfavorable review, Du Bois faulted McKay not only for being morally deficient in depicting explicit sexual content in the novel, but also for his distorted representations of lower-class blacks and shameless trafficking in white stereotypes about black life. Du Bois's verdict was...