- Amiable with Big Teeth:The Case of Claude McKay’s Last Novel
Put everything in it, yourself and everything else.Max Eastman to Claude McKay
Ever since James Joyce’s famous claim that Ulysses would “give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book,” modernism has been concerned with the recuperative preservation of experience.1 Joyce’s encyclopedic approach has enjoyed a wide influence, notably on the Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay, who stayed in Paris shortly after Ulysses was published in 1922.2 In his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), McKay acknowledges Joyce as “le maître among the moderns” yet considers Ulysses to be “greater as a textbook for modern writers than as a novel for the general public.”3 In a letter to Max Eastman, McKay calls Joyce “a Don Quixote of contemporary literature,” part of a few “crusading revolutionists against the dead weight of formal respectability under which modern literature is buried.”4 McKay—who fought his fair share of windmills over the years—certainly had other modernist influences, but his privileged relation to Ulysses as a “textbook” manifests itself in McKay’s novelistic attempts to maintain a similar Joycean archival fidelity. As his biographer Wayne Cooper has underscored, McKay’s depiction of the vieux port in his second novel, Banjo (1929), “was thorough, unsparing, and accurate,” and, in light of the Marseilles quarter’s complete destruction during World War II, “McKay’s description of its congested alleyways, dark habitations, seedy bars, and sinister denizens has become for some French a classic evocation of the quarter as [End Page 557] it was between the wars.”5 Thus, the ability to “give a picture so complete” that the reader could “reconstruct” what has “disappeared” directly associates modernism with other forms of preservation, most notably the archive.
This holistic preservationist strain within modernism evinces an insatiable archival sensibility that seeks to accumulate, process, and conserve experience. Such an archival sensibility affected McKay’s writing career at the height of the Harlem Renaissance and continued to be a challenge for him as he set out to write what would turn out to be his last novel, the as yet unpublished and recently discovered Amiable with Big Teeth.6 The present article moves beyond the authentication process that was undertaken after its initial discovery to provide the first sustained literary reading of Amiable. I build on Marilyn Booth’s approach to nineteenth-century “fictional narrative as an alternative site of archival imagining” in order to read McKay’s twentieth-century novel as a work that is “disruptive of assumptions about material ‘truths,’” or what Ann Laura Stoler terms “epistemic uncertainties.”7 Stoler seeks to follow “the career of paper”—as Don DeLillo defines archives—from its inception up to the ossified grid of “major” history, paying close attention to the detours it has taken along the way.8 Although my work lies outside the strict context of colonial records that Stoler describes, I am similarly interested in following the vagabond itineraries of documents, in this case those McKay gathered and wielded for his own literary purposes.
“Because imagining what might be was as important as knowing what was” for McKay, he fashioned Amiable as a roman à clef, a genre dedicated to the embedding of sociohistorical facts but one that nevertheless resists the tyranny of “actual” history.9 Accordingly, I read “along the archival grain” only to better highlight the ways in which McKay crafts a “minor” history that runs against the grain as a means of disrupting the power dynamics threatening black autonomy. Ostensibly about the complex world-historical dynamics involved in the emergence of the “Aid-To-Ethiopia” organizations in Harlem during the Italo-Abyssinian crisis—which stimulated “new racial solidarity”—Amiable is McKay’s most realized literary expression of his desire for greater group unity among African Americans. McKay’s archival sensibility is shaped by his ideals of black self-reliance rather than by a strict adherence to historical truth. In this respect, the political, imaginative, and archival are, for him, intertwined.10
When McKay returned to...