- The Folk as Alternative Modernity: Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom and the Romance of Nature
Claude McKay’s final novel, Banana Bottom (1933), enacts a speculative return home to Jamaica for the self-exiled author. The facts of the novel’s production suggest the international scope of McKay’s career abroad: he wrote the book in Tangier and published it in New York for a predominantly American audience. McKay’s early involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, his editorial work in London for the Worker’s Dreadnought and in New York for The Liberator, his celebrity in Soviet Russia, and his years in Europe imply a broad engagement with the workings of the twentieth century as well as a strong interest in Marxist aesthetics. In his 1937 autobiography, McKay describes himself as an “internationalist,” explaining (with some levity) that “an internationalist was a bad nationalist”; he was also a self-described “peasant become proletarian,” a description which gave his “internationalist” label a distinctly Marxian inflection. 1 So while Banana Bottom argues for a return to “folk” roots and a celebration of the anti-modern, it does not do so for the sake of nostalgia alone; rather, McKay returns home in this novel to offer a careful analysis of the modern global economy and Jamaica’s place within it. 2 In Banana Bottom, McKay argues for the rejection of colonial cultural ideology—most notably, Christianity—and the return to “folk” roots as a route to autonomy for Afro-Jamaican peasants. Such autonomy is imagined not only as an alternative to the modernity of the colonial mission, but also as a form of resistance to the vagaries of the global commodities market and to the incursions of low-wage immigrant [End Page 79] labor. 3 Banana Bottom argues for the authenticity of peasant culture so as to advance a secondary argument for Afro-Jamaicans to participate in the peasant appropriation of economic capital.
In Banana Bottom, the “folk” is situated at the axis between two generic imperatives. 4 In one, that of the “folk” romance, 5 the village of Banana Bottom represents the purportedly timeless values and collective identity of Afro-Jamaican peasant life; here, the “folk” are economically self-sufficient and culturally regenerative, and any change is part of the synchronic cycle of daily life. In the other, the “folk” drives the machinery of a naturalist plot; 6 the novel traces the inexorable fall of Bita Plant from her position as a highly-educated Christian missionary in the town of Jubilee to her marriage with a peasant farmer in her native village. Bita’s decline is often described by the narrator as motivated by her unconscious or instinctive feeling for her “folk” roots. But Bita’s decline does not find her debased or in a state of monstrosity, as the naturalist plot might suggest; rather, in succumbing to the diachronic pressures of psychological determinism, Bita finds herself savingly inserted into the utopian world of the “folk” romance. By surrendering to instinct, Bita discovers the autonomy by which she can be true to herself and to her Afro-Jamaican community, perpetually.
Because the novel represents political affiliations through psychological categories, most critics have understood it to be about Bita’s crisis of personal identity. These readers have assessed Bita’s final position as either liberating, or as too ideal to be plausible. Those critics who praise the book generally conclude that Bita is liberated by her return home. Kenneth Ramchand has praised Bita’s “final liberation and embrace of the folk,” noting that her “self-assertion takes the form of immersion.” 7 George Kent sees Bita learn “how to make her Western education work harmoniously with the soulfulness of her roots. . . . Bita is able to resist [her education] and to opt for the warmer and more spontaneous celebration of life available in the village.” 8 Critics who are unhappy with the book complain that Bita’s fate is unrealistic. Michael Gilkes has charged that the novel “reads like a case of special pleading [End Page 80] for an indigenous, rooted Black Consciousness.” 9 Bita “finds a place that is truly ‘home’ by finding a ‘solution’ (the inverted commas suggest...