Circuits Crossing: Finding Claude McKay in the Archives

Volume 3, Issue 2, Spring 2013

By Dylan Suher

For nearly 70 years, pressed between the covers of a ratty black binder and shunted into a file box in the Samuel Roth papers, sandwiched between legal records, correspondences personal and professional, hastily scribbled half-brained schemes, and vaguely bawdy etchings, the last manuscript of fiction by the great Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay lay in dusty repose, untouched and unknown—until a very lucky Columbia graduate student, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, stumbled upon it and recognized it for what it was.

It was—to say the least—an unexpected encounter.

The significance of the find is undeniable: Cloutier struck academic gold. “It just does not happen that great modernist writers have complete texts of novels that are just sitting somewhere,” said Brent Hayes Edwards, M.A. ’92, Ph.D. ’98, and a scholar of African diasporic literature in Columbia’s Department of English and Comparative Literature as well as Cloutier’s advisor.

But beyond the drama, the rediscovery of McKay’s novel Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem is a story about the relationships that lie hidden in the papers; as Edwards puts it, the “circuits” of different lives “crossing.” It’s a story about the existences that dedicated archivists and scholars reconstruct every day, bit by bit. It’s a story of the archives.

Jean-Christophe Cloutier (JC for short) converses with a casual puckishness that belies the depth of his knowledge on African-American literature. He smiles warmly and is quick to crack a joke; when he is particularly enthusiastic about a point, he is given to making exaggerated gestures, causing his unruly mass of curly black hair to flop over on his forehead.

As a French-speaking native of Quebec, African-American literature spoke to Cloutier. “Something about Quebec that people don’t realize is that Quebec was a colonized nation,” he says. “In that sense, the [African-American] voice really spoke to a certain experience, although I didn’t realize it until years later.”

During his time as an undergraduate at Concordia University in Montreal, he became obsessed with a theory that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man could be read as a superhero comic (“like Batman, or Superman or something . . . Invisible Man!”). Although there were a few references to comic books in Invisible Man, Cloutier had no solid proof linking Ellison to comic books. Motivated to prove the theory, he read up on both Ellison and the history of comics. Cloutier eventually proved, through archival material, that Ellison had worked with and been influenced by the ideas of Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who had studied the effects of comic books on youth. “When I first saw the connection, I got very excited and eventually my first published article was on that,” Cloutier recalls. “I ended up in the archive to legitimate my reading. That’s the only thing that would let people believe this crazy theory.”

Convinced of the power of the archive, Cloutier applied for and received an internship with Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library, as part of an innovative program designed by the library and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to train graduate students in archival techniques. Graduate students like Cloutier are trained to aid the library in processing collections in which they would have subject-area expertise. The graduate students, in turn, gain a methodological edge for their dissertation research and are prepared (if they’re lucky) to make discoveries like the Amiable manuscript. Cloutier was originally slated to process the papers of C. L. R. James, the renowned Afro-Trinidadian historian and theorist, but he was forced to choose another collection when the James papers suddenly became unavailable for processing. Cloutier chose to process the papers of Samuel Roth, the first person to dare to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in the United States.

The enterprising Roth was an independent publisher with a reliable sense for the best of Modernism. His first magazine, Two Worlds, claimed such luminaries as Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford as editors; Ulysses was serialized in its pages. Roth was also a fearless warrior against censorship throughout his life, going to jail twice for publishing Modernist fiction considered obscene by the authorities. The Supreme Court decision that dramatically limited the scope of what could be considered obscene, Roth v. United States bears his name.

Roth’s legacy, however, is far from unalloyed. His right to publish Ulysses was dubious: while recent scholarship suggests that Pound, acting as a proxy for Joyce, granted Roth permission to publish, Roth’s belief that such permission remained valid when he finally did serialize the work—three years later—was questionable at best. In any case, Joyce was so enraged by what he considered the unauthorized publication that he immortalized Roth in Finnegans Wake: “Rothim! . . .With his unique hornbook and his prince of aupauper’s pride, blundering all over the two world.” At the behest of his authorized publisher, Sylvia Beach, he instigated an unprecedented “International Protest,” signed by more than 167 writers, which permanently blacklisted Roth among the High Modernists.

Furthermore, not all of Roth’s work shared Ulysses’ distinguished literary pedigree. Roth was also the proud publisher of such works as Jews Must Live, an anti-Semitic tract penned by the Jewish Roth that was later used as propaganda by the Nazis; a “biography” of Herbert Hoover that implicated the president in slave trading and murder; and an unauthorized sequel to Lady Chatterley’s Lover entitled Lady Chatterley’s Husbands.

“My wife, who is also in English lit and had done some research on Roth, we got to talking about Roth and I remembered that Columbia just acquired his papers. She said ‘You should try to see if they have the papers ready,’” Cloutier explains. “It’s pretty ironic, in the end. They wanted me to process something from their backlog of black literature collections; I decided to do Samuel Roth; I ended up working on a black writer.”

Processing the Roth collection meant sorting through and cataloging a motley set of materials. “It’s his prison letters, family photos, publisher notes, manuscripts by other people, little gimmicks (buy this book, get this razor blade), giant posters of scantily clad women, publishing blocks, a lot of hardcore material history of an independent publisher,” Cloutier says.

Cloutier spent the summer of 2009 and much of the 2009–2010 academic year on a bench in the Rare Books and Manuscript Library, methodically going through box after box of papers, letters, magazines, and manuscripts. Archival processing is extremely routinized work: Cloutier would remove each artifact from the original boxes, date it, examine it, and write a concise description for the library finding aid. For a large collection like Roth’s (54 boxes, measuring 25 feet when lined up end to end), the process can take weeks.

Roth had bound most of his manuscripts into paper-staining, store-bought black binders, which was how the Amiable manuscript had remained undiscovered for so long. “It looked like pretty much everything else that was in there,” Cloutier says.

As part of processing, Cloutier had to take each manuscript out of the binders and transfer it to archival-quality acid-free folders. It was in the midst of this menial task that he came across Amiable. “It was so unexpected. I had been doing this for hours already. I saw the cover and thought, Oh man, this is amazing. I had done some research on McKay but had never heard of anything like [Amiable]. I thought maybe I hadn’t read enough, that my research wasn’t good enough,” Cloutier recalls. “I turned to my buddy Aaron, who was another archival intern, and said, ‘Hey, there’s a McKay novel in here, man.’ He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t read that one.’ I said, ‘Yeah, me neither.’ No one admits that you don’t know it exists.”

Cloutier was intrigued, but unsure he had found anything at all. In any case, he didn’t have time to read the manuscript; he had to continue processing. He spent the next few weeks trying to find information on the novel and was puzzled when he found nothing: “I thought, Oh, this is a dark period [in McKay’s life], maybe there’s just not a lot written about it. The title is unusual enough that you’d expect it to pop out. But no, I couldn’t find anything.”

Stumped, he casually brought the manuscript up in conversation with Edwards during office hours. “He’s a McKay scholar, and I figured, if anyone would know, it’d be him,” Cloutier explains. “But he was surprised and said, ‘No, I haven’t heard about that, are you sure?’”

“From there it quickly became very exciting,” Cloutier says. He had apparently found a manuscript that had been lost to history for half a century.

The Jamaican-born Claude McKay was fortunate enough to be a writer of his time. McKay’s work heralded in the New Negro Renaissance, better known as the Harlem Renaissance: a literary movement in the 1920s dedicated to producing and promoting works about African Americans, by African Americans. His 1928 fiction debut, Home to Harlem, was the first bestseller of the movement. His novel Banjo, a picaresque of black dock bums set in Marseilles during the interwar period, was so influential to Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor, writers of the French black nationalist Négritude movement, that they could recite passages by heart. In a letter to McKay in 1925, Langston Hughes called McKay “still the best of the colored poets and [he] probably will be for the next century.”

While McKay’s work is strongly identified with the Harlem Renaissance, he was entirely absent from Harlem during the era. He lived in Harlem for a brief but formative period during World War I but left in 1921 for England. Like many black intellectuals between the wars, McKay was attracted to Communism by its strong professed commitment to racial equality. He traveled to Moscow for the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, and although he was not a member of any official delegation or even a party member, he managed to talk his way into addressing the congress and having a private audience with Leon Trotsky. McKay left the USSR in 1923 and spent the next ten years living in France, Spain, and Morocco, returning to New York only in 1934, well after the heyday of the Renaissance.

McKay himself felt apart from the movement. “McKay met most of the major figures of the period in France, and in his autobiography, in 1937, he says, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t there, I didn’t really like a lot of those guys, they’re elitists, I didn’t want to be part of that, I’d rather hang out with the guys on the beach in Marseilles,’” Edwards says.

McKay was indeed a difficult personality. He was a contrarian who loved to argue, he could turn viciously on even close friends in an instant, and he often needled his friends for loans to get him through financial straits.

“He was this demanding, complicated guy,” remarks Diana Lachatanere, curator of the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, who manages the McKay estate on behalf of the heirs. “A very critical mind—not just critical, but critiquing and reading people.”

McKay struggled to find a home, both geographically and intellectually. He traveled ceaselessly and veered from Anglophilia in his youth to international Communism to a late-in-life conversion to Roman Catholicism. It was McKay who described himself best, in the guise of Ray, an urbane black intellectual in his novel Banjo: “A vagabond poet . . . determined, courageous and proud in his swarthy skin, quitting jobs when he wanted to go on a dream wish or a love drunk, without being beholden to anybody.”

Until Cloutier found the Amiable manuscript, scholars had thought that McKay’s last work was Romance in Marseilles, an unpublished manuscript in the Schomburg Center’s McKay collection, written a full fifteen years before McKay’s death. For Edwards, the existence of a later work of fiction by McKay made sense: “I’d always wondered why McKay would have stopped writing fiction. I knew that he had lived in poverty and suffered from health problems in the decade before his death in 1948. But it always struck me as strange that he would have stopped writing fiction entirely. Now we know that he didn’t.”

Amiable with Big Teeth is a satire and conspiracy thriller filled with the swirling eddies of late 1930s Harlem politics: Communist co-option, the Popular Front, the black reaction to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. It reflects the growing anti-Communist sentiments of McKay’s later years, as well as the detailed ethnographies of Harlem McKay wrote for the Federal Writers Project. The novel is a veritable missing link: both for black writing and politics during the thirties and for Claude McKay’s evolution as a writer.

“We know a good deal about black politics in the Depression and Popular Front era, but there aren’t many fictional portraits of black intellectual life in New York in the late 1930s; I don’t know of anything as rich and multilayered as Amiable with Big Teeth,” Edwards writes.

“If it had been published, I think—I’d like to think—that people would have realized what he was really trying to say,” Cloutier says. “He’s matured as a novelist. It’s sad that it didn’t get published: Langston Hughes always said he was a master prose stylist, and this would have proved it.”

But before they could comfortably claim Amiable as the last novel by Claude McKay, Edwards and Cloutier would have to prove it. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which manages the McKay literary estate, insisted on the authentication of the manuscript. “There was something that Brent said, it was as though he was asking us to write a blurb, that made me realize, wait wait wait—all we have is your statement that this is an authentic manuscript. We need further proof,” Lachatanere recalls.

And that would entail returning to the archives. Knowing that the manuscript was likely written in the early forties, Edwards and Cloutier spent two years combing through the papers of McKay and every person and organization with whom he might have corresponded in that time period—papers that were stored in archives scattered across the United States. “There’s a kind of detective aspect.” Cloutier says of the authentication process, “Especially when you go to an archive where you don’t live and you stay at some cheap motel or something, it really feels like you’re on a case.”

But for the scholar, the witnesses are dead, the perp will never confess, and there may not even be a case to crack. Much of the work Edwards and Cloutier did in the archive was interpretive: rather than revealing the already existing truth, they had to find the narrative based solely on scattered materials and isolated hints, reconstructing the life of McKay in the hopes of understanding the period in which he wrote Amiable.

As reconstructed by Cloutier and Edwards, the period in which McKay wrote Amiable was the nadir of his life. After the success of Home to Harlem and Banjo, his short story collection Gingertown and his novel Banana Bottom sold miserably. Out of money, he returned to America from Europe, where he eked out a meager living through the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal–era program to support writers during the Depression. At the FWP, he was surrounded by younger radical writers (most notably Richard Wright) who were constantly at odds with the now anti-Communist McKay.

At the end of 1941 McKay fell gravely ill, and a friend discovered him in wretched condition in his small basement apartment in Harlem. Cloutier and Edwards surmise that the previous summer, publisher E. P. Dutton had rejected Amiable, a novel that they had commissioned, which may have led McKay to submit the manuscript to Roth. After an initial round of highly enthusiastic correspondence with his lifelong friend Max Eastman, the novel is never mentioned again (“Perhaps it was a sore spot,” Cloutier speculates). McKay next wrote Eastman only in 1942, asking him to come visit him in the hospital. “I look all right on the outside,” McKay wrote Eastman.

Through the process of intensively researching his life, Cloutier began to feel personally close to McKay. “I’m very attached to the 1941-and-beyond Claude McKay,” Cloutier says, “I’m a sap for this kind of old man story. Here’s a guy who was misunderstood by his fellow artists, derided and criticized for being an isolationist, for not working with the program, for being old and passé. Among McKay and his friends, there was this great sense of hope around the novel, and knowing that it didn’t happen, is very sad. I always kind of want to defend him; any detractor, I want to say, ‘You don’t know his story, man.’”

As Cloutier and Edwards combed the archives and assembled the letters and materials linked to the manuscript, the full story of Amiable began to emerge. Characters and plot points from the novel were echoed by real people and events from the time when McKay would have been writing. Moreover, much of the novel is informed by events documented in the Federal Writers Project archive, files to which only the FWP writers would have had access.

The most convincing piece of evidence came in a letter written by Max Eastman, praising the novel that was not to be. Eastman offers much encouragement and proceeds to quote a few sentences that precisely match those in the novel. In the world of scholarship, where there can be frustratingly few definitive answers, this letter was practically a smoking gun.

McKay’s authorship of the manuscript is proven, but the work of interpretation is just beginning. Edwards used the experience of authenticating the manuscript, along with ten years spent tracking down the story of a mysterious photo found in the McKay papers, to write a prolonged meditation on archives for the journal Callaloo. “Part of what the archive teaches you is how much you don’t know. Nobody even knew that McKay and this guy Roth knew each other, much less that they had any kind of working relationship,” Edwards says.

He points out that many important relationships—close friendships, neighbors, office mates—don’t leave the kind of paper trail (letters, memos, or even photos) that end up in the archive. As a result, some stories are simply lost to history. “There are crucial paths, in terms of the lived experience of these historical figures, that the archive doesn’t register,” Edwards says. “You realize how much of a fiction it is: this idea that you can think about networks, that you can say these people were close collaborators or close friends. You realize how little we know as positive truth.”

Cloutier is parlaying his experience in the archives into his doctoral dissertation. The dissertation examines the work of McKay, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, and Patricia Highsmith, arguing that the work of these writers, much of which is strongly associated with improvisation, can actually be characterized as a form of archiving information and experience. The novel, Cloutier believes, completes the historical record found within the archives. “One reason I love literature is that it’s a counter-archive, it’s a counter-archive that recuperates figures who would otherwise slip through the cracks of history and there they are, to be remembered and to be thought about,” Cloutier says, “By celebrating figures that postwar America would prefer shutting its eyes to, literature, in time, forces these sites of power to realize and acquiesce, to say, ‘All right, let the weirdo in.’”

Through his dissertation, he hopes to clear up misconceptions about archives and about literary scholarship: “I’ve been on both sides of the desk now—as an archivist, and as the researcher asking for the box. One of the driving forces behind my dissertation is to try and bridge the differences.” The archive, Cloutier argues, is neither simply the librarian’s “papers in a box” nor the scholar’s “romantic repository for all things lost.” It’s a site of tremendous recuperative historical power—but it will always need the interpretive fictions of scholars and artists to make it come to life.

The curators, librarians, and archivists, meanwhile, continue the essential but unassuming routines of keeping history. They are tasked with recognizing collections of importance to history and scholarship and actively building the historical record. The archivist strikes a difficult intellectual balance: creating order among disparate materials and information without imposing a false narrative. Diana Lachatanere continues to manage the McKay literary estate, along with her other duties as a curator and the assistant director for collections and services at the Schomburg Center. After decades in the profession, she still feels a strong sense of duty. “This nation’s story is the individual’s story multiplied,” she says. “Those of us who choose to work in special collections understand that our duty is to protect those individual stories.”

While there will always be a need for scholars to understand and interpret what lies in the archive, the papers and artifacts that represent the lives of human beings keep coming in—and they need someone to sort, keep and protect them. It was thanks to the painstaking work of the curators at Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library—curators who recognized the value of the Samuel Roth collection, who assiduously courted the Roth family during the process of acquiring the papers, and helped to maintain the papers until they could be processed—who ensured that the collection was preserved for history. That the Roth papers remained preserved for seventy years verges on the miraculous and is due solely to the hard work and perspicacity of the curators. Librarians and curators are faced with a Herculean task that at times seems Sisyphean: with limited funding and staffing, and new material being produced every day, they must identify, process, and preserve the raw stuff of history. At current staffing levels, it would take about twelve years to process the backlog of unprocessed archival collections; meanwhile, new collections come in every year, in hundred-box increments.

The importance of this daily effort cannot be underestimated. The archive remains one of the last places in modern life where the products of the human mind are treated as sacred. Elsewhere the documents are shredded, the library is sold off, the files are deleted. But in the archive, through the daily efforts of archivists, our society pays tribute to the value of the lives that people have led and the traces they have left behind.