Writing from the Margins of the Margins: Michael Gold's Jews without Money and Claude Mckay's Home to Harlem

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Published just two years apart, Michael Gold's Jews Without Money (1930) and Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928) both depict, in colorful and often lurid detail, the underbelly of New York City's two most famous "ethnic" neighborhoods. (1) While Gold's portrayal of the gangs, prostitutes, and criminals of the Lower East Side and McKay's depiction of the saloons, sweetmen, and violence of Harlem have fascinated readers ever since they first appeared, they have also provoked controversy and scathing critique. Over the years, both novels have been accused of sensationalism, primitivism, and, most recently, of idealizing a certain type of hypermasculinity. Neither one ever really managed to enter into the mainstream of the Jewish American or African American literary canons; yet, both texts continue to be read and analyzed.

Given the very clear and public communist commitments of its author, Jews Without Money has most often been read as part of the proletarian fiction of the 1930s and only recently has its status as a "Jewish" text been (re)asserted. (2) Similarly, Home to Harlem has never been "accorded a major position in the lineage of African American cultural expression," having most often been categorized and then sidelined as "primitivist" fiction (Maiwald 825). As with its Jewish counterpart, however, in the last decade scholars have been returning to and offering more nuanced analyses of this novel.

In addition to the similar political leanings of their authors, these two novels have many fascinating parallels. (3) The narratives share a focus on "low-class" life, a lack of an organized plot structure, and a history of ambivalent literary reception. They are both set in New York City during the early part of the twentieth century, and they both dwell on the significance of their specific urban contexts. Through their extensive descriptions of the poor, the downtrodden, and the working class, the novels paint a vivid picture of blacks and Jews who have not made it in US society. Moreover, the texts present complex male protagonists who are resistant to and often contemptuous of dominant US culture. These protagonists inhabit the marginal spaces of the already marginalized Harlem and the Lower East Side and are not portrayed as aspiring to integrate into main stream middle-class US society. Home to Harlem and Jews Without Money should accordingly be considered particularly useful sites for exploring questions of African American and Jewish American "subculturality" during the late Progressive Era and Jazz Age. By subculture I mean a liminal space in which a group of marginalized subjects produce and circulate a set of practices and norms that are at variance with and sometimes in active opposition to the dominant white culture that surrounds them. (4)

I juxtapose Home to Harlem with Jews Without Money, concentrating on the representation of the "physical" spaces of Harlem and the Lower East Side. These neighborhoods come to signify the make-up and boundaries of the Jewish and black subcultural worlds in the novels. Such a comparative analysis reveals that despite many similarities between McKay's and Gold's narratives, these city spaces are described in strikingly different ways. Whereas Harlem is construed as a positive all-black space whose very "blackness" seems to have a certain radical potential to counter dominant white society and engender political renewal, the "Jewishness" of the Lower East Side is depicted as unable to mobilize such radical potential.

Because they dramatize the different ways countercultural sections within the African American and Jewish American communities were attempting to self-fashion, create alternative norms, and inscribe themselves as oppositional subjects in the US landscape, these texts can be read as revealing something about the markedly dissimilar positionality of these two minority groups during the Jazz Age. McKay's narrative underscores the definitional power of the black-white divide and points to the ways in which "blackness" as a signifier was sutured to relatively stable and legible signifieds; this suturing, in turn, made the strategic deployment of an essentialist "blackness" possible, while endowing such a deployment with a subversive and empowering potential. …