- Of Vanity, Fake News, and FlairNaturalism's International Entrance into Harlem in Claude McKay's Amiable with Big Teeth
The recent publication of two of Claude McKay's novelsfrom the 1930s, Amiable with Big Teeth (2017) and Romance in Marseilles (2020), represents significant developments in the relationship between African American literature and American literary naturalism. Although scholars have previously acknowledged paul Laurence Dunbar, charles chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, and Ann Petry as important African American contributors to naturalist traditions, these authors still receive far less attention than "canonical" naturalist writers such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Presently, and at least partially because of literary naturalism's decades-long focus on "white-authored writings and social Darwinist discourse" (Kilgallen 2018, 169), one that has cumulatively "relegated [African American authors] to the proverbial margins" (Long 2007, 172), the foremost African American contributors are [End Page 103] Paul Laurence Dunbar for his 1902 novel The Sport of the Gods (Egnal 2018, 183) and Richard Wright, established upon the strength of his first collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), and his fiery, follow-up novel Native Son (1940)—although Wright's works appear long after American literary naturalism's heyday during a 20-year period between 1893 and 1913.
This article seeks to bring Claude McKay into the naturalist fold, and not simply to broaden the range of American literary naturalism beyond its prior historical and theoretical foundations. Instead, I argue that the publication of McKay's recently recovered novels enriches American literary naturalism, addressing some of its concerns in novel ways and pushing beyond its national framework into a larger, global sphere. McKay offers a unique, alternative voice that complements prior African American contributors, one that intersperses humor, wit, scathing critique, and joyful exuberance within a panoramic tableau of characters hailing from different walks of life; and in his recent, posthumously published works, he also makes a compelling case for American literary naturalism's engagement with international politics.
Both Amiable with Big Teeth and Romance in Marseilles share stories with tragic events and outcomes that are hallmarks of naturalist works. Donald Pizer notes that American literary naturalism surfaced more or less organically, without a principal theorist or school of thought, and that it never calcified into an established literary movement (1993, 7). Looking backward, literary scholars have come to define its height of literary influence and development, historically speaking, as between a two-decade period from 1893 to 1913, though scholars continue to debate its legacy before and beyond this time frame. Composed in the 1930s, McKay's pair of novels occur long after the peak years of American literary naturalism, but they embrace and engage with its precepts and interests. Like their predecessors within the American literary naturalism tradition, Amiable with Big Teeth and Romance in Marseilles "present examples of controlled turmoil," with conclusions that "seem spontaneous, or natural, even though they are strictly determined, by the imagination of the author, by the limitations of societ[ies], and by whatever other forces affect the production of artistic [End Page 104] representations of human experience" (Dudley 2002, 54). In differing ways, they also connect American literary naturalism with global affairs, contributing to a web that links American literary naturalism's European origins before 1893 with post-World War I modernity and Internationalism of the 1930s. In this sense, they collapse historical boundaries that have previously strengthened foundational understandings of the movement but have also limited the horizon of its continuing influence, especially regarding gender and ethnicity.
In Amiable with Big Teeth, Claude McKay follows a pathway similar to those of other naturalist writers, drawing inspiration from European authors as well as from his own background to create revolutionary works that speak to present-day readers. His novel expresses African American interests while also challenging or adapting naturalist notions in three ways. First, McKay draws from literary naturalism's engagement with primitivism, offering a new take that exposes it as a means to deceive, rather than to imagine or celebrate, African American life. While prior white naturalist authors resorted to primitivism as a "symbolic repository for a...