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  • Anachronistic Life: Racial Vitalism and “Unhistorical” Temporality in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem
  • Jennifer F. Wang (bio)

Home to Harlem for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath,” writes W. E. B. Du Bois in his now infamous and oft-cited review of Claude McKay’s novel.1 Du Bois goes on to condemn the novel’s celebration of “drunkenness, fighting, lascivious sexual promiscuity and utter absence of restraint” for trafficking in damaging stereotypes of black primitivism and deviance in order to entertain white audiences (“Two Novels,” 785). This charge of primitivism has, in a sense, shaped the critical reception of Home to Harlem, with critics most often falling into one of two camps. The first, as aptly captured by Du Bois above, characterizes the initial wave of criticism in which the novel became embroiled in controversial debates about black artistic promotion of primitivism in cultural productions of the Harlem Renaissance.2 The second, constituting much of recent McKay criticism, tends toward reversing the previous charges by offering a more politically generous appraisal of the novel. From Marxist critiques that posit its substantiation of a proletarian black internationalism to queer readings that imbue its homosociality with utopian potential for counterhegemonic collectivity, or a synthesis of both as a “queer black Marxist manifesto,” Home to Harlem and its primitivism have been recuperated through the lens of oppositional politics.3 Extending this second line of critique, I offer an alternative account of the novel’s primitivism, not by exposing the hidden ground of its resistant politics, but in [End Page 785] fact by approaching it as such in order to argue that its imagery and discourses function as a site of working-through for the influential modernist philosophy of vitalism. In other words, I suggest that the novel’s racial primitivism is troubling and discomfiting precisely because it constitutes an engagement with philosophical debates about the biological essence of life itself, which, in the racial context, contains a threatening proximity to essentialism or, more disturbingly, the specter of eugenics. However, it is also my contention that McKay’s novel, rather than either straightforwardly rehearsing or rejecting the vitalist philosophies of its time, crucially intervenes in them in order to reveal their constitutive contradictions in the realm of race.

In recent years, there has been a surge of scholarly interest in the relationship between the philosophy of vitalism and the modernist literary imaginary. Broadly defined, vitalism constitutes a branch of philosophy dedicated to the investigation of life as a “vital force” that cannot be reduced to its discrete material processes, as the traditional sciences of biology, physics, or chemistry would explain it. Instead, vitalist thought insists that “what makes the living living is nothing material or measurable.”4 Given such an emphasis on becoming, irreducibility, and transformation, it is hardly surprising that vitalist discourses held so much appeal for modernist literary writers, themselves invested in formally experimenting with the dynamism of character, identity, and selfhood.5 Accordingly, much productive scholarship has emerged out of positioning writers such as Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and T. S. Eliot in dialogue with thinkers such as Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James.6 However, the works of Harlem Renaissance writers have been largely absent from critical accounts of these literary exchanges, which is striking given the mutual bearings that race and vitalism hold for one another. On the one hand, the vitalist impulse to apprehend life’s values beyond biological reduction would certainly have resonated with and perhaps even animated those writers of the New Negro movement experimenting with generating a specifically black aesthetic and cultural mode of living. On the other hand, as Donna V. Jones cogently argues in The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy, “one cannot understand twentieth-century vitalism separately from its implication in racial and anti-Semitic discourses.”7 In underscoring the mutually constitutive relationship between race and vitalism, Jones not only illuminates the racial thinking imbricated within a number of vitalism’s key concepts, but also, with regards to the works of negritude poets, has pointed out that “some of the dominant models of emancipation within black...


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pp. 785-803
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