Claude McKay: A Black Poet's Struggle for Identity

By Tyrone Tillery | Go to book overview

5
Banjo: Art and Self-Catharsis

CRITICISM FR0M blacks of McKay Home to Harlem and of Banjo, his next novel, along with the general debate over the black artist's obligation to his race, underscored a difference of philosophy between McKay and other blacks. This criticism and McKay's public and private response to it can also be used to illuminate McKay's general relationship to the American black community. In turn, this relationship sheds light on a bitter intraracial conflict within the American black community.

Banjo, published in 1929, was set in Marseilles, France, 6,000 miles away from the streets of Harlem. Subtitled "the story without a plot," the novel offers a simple series of episodes united more by the presence of a recurring group of characters than by an interlocking and developing plot. The chief character wants to lead a pick-up band. The second leading character, on a quest to find authentic stories for a novel he hopes to write, joins him. The twosome thereafter lead the reader through a maze of mostly unrelated episodes.1

Banjo's episodic nature had caused some concern among his friends even before the novel was completed. Louise Bryant Bullitt warned McKay about his habit of rushing a piece of literature to completion. She told McKay that he had lovely ideas, but admonished him for never properly developing them. If he was ever to publish first-rate material, she indicated, he would have to work harder.2 McKay's life seemed to be marked by a sense of urgency, and his approach to writing often reflected it. His writing career was dotted with a series of "lovely ideas" that somehow never fulfilled their expectations and potential. Before he had polished one piece of writing, McKay would begin another.

McKay's frenzied approach to Banjo also vexed his literary agent, William A. Bradley. Bradley had advised McKay to spend a great deal of time developing his story because it was set in a world unfamiliar to most Americans. He was especially concerned about the shotgun manner in which McKay introduced his charac

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