The Last Word: Claude McKay's Unpublished 'Cycle Manuscript.'

By Griffin, Barbara Jackson | MELUS, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

The Last Word: Claude McKay's Unpublished 'Cycle Manuscript.'


Griffin, Barbara Jackson, MELUS


During the summer of 1943, five years before his death and one year before his baptism into the Roman Catholic Church, Claude McKay began his "Cycle Manuscript," a collection of fifty-four new and old poems, mostly sonnets (Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the-Harlem Renaissance 358-59). He would never see it published. "Too bitter and personal," claimed the editor at Harper's, and Dutton's said his sonnets were not poems at all (qtd. in Cooper, The Passion of Claude McKay 307). In a letter to Max Eastman, editor of the socialist journal The Liberator and McKay's close friend, a frustrated McKay lamented a loss of his "old style," as he appealed to Eastman "to look through" the poems and make any needed "corrections" (qtd. in The Passion 307). Once the fiery poet who could deftly balance lyricism and polemics, McKay now felt "more like Pope and Swift... than like Shelley and Keats and the Elizabethans." Betraying a waning confidence, he welcomed Eastman's judgment: "And the poems! They are wonderful to look at after you chop them up!" (qtd. in The Passion 309). Despite Eastman's emendations, McKay's collection was never published. The work remains a typescript at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. But beyond any question of its literary merit, the "Cycle Manuscript" is an important document that sheds light on the reflections of a sensitive, gifted artist at a dramatic stage in his life.

On October 11, 1944, Claude McKay, one of the most prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance, became a Roman Catholic, despite pleas from Eastman to hold fast to his lifelong commitment to rationalism: "After all these years, at such cost...you resisted the temptation to warp your mind and morals in order to join the Stalin church. Why warp it the other way now for the Catholics?" (Rebel Sojourner 360). But McKay stood firm, insisting that embracing a religion was like falling in love with a woman. "There is no reason to it...but you love one and rejoice in her companionship" (The Passion 305). McKay's attraction to the Catholic Church can be traced to a number of possible sources: the private sermon on cathedral "glory" delivered to him by George Bernard Shaw when McKay visited England between 1919 and 1921 (see McKay's autobiography, A Long Way From Home 65) or his boyhood infatuation with the ornate colors captured in a religious picture remembered from his childhood in Jamaica (McKay, "My Green Hills of Jamaica" 41). McKay biographer Wayne Cooper, in Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner, suggests that McKay's baptism may have been an act of defiance against his father, a stern Baptist fundamentalist, who condemned Catholics as idol worshippers (365). But there may have been an even more compelling reason. Four years before his death, after years of poverty and desperation between 1934 and 1948, McKay probably looked to the Church as his last link to self-respect and dignity.(1)

In 1942, after serious health problems stemming from the weakened heart and high-blood pressure inherited from his mother and cycles of unemployment (caused in part by the Depression and complicated by McKay's twelve-year absence from the United States and his West Indian status that may have isolated him from Harlem networking), McKay was alone in a basement apartment when Ellen Tarry, a friend and fellow Harlem writer and also a Catholic, found him and, with the aid of youth from Friendship house (a Catholic lay organization), nursed him back to health. McKay reciprocated their kindness by visiting the Friendship house and sharing his poems (Tarry 187). In a letter to Eastman, on August 13, 1942, McKay wrote that during his serious illness "the only hands that ministered to [him] were those of strangers from the Catholic Mission, stretched out to snatch [him] from the Shadow of Death" (qtd. in The Passion 301). In 1943 McKay again turned to the benevolence of Catholic friends after suffering a stroke, quite possibly brought on by his brief employment as a riveter in an Army war plant. …

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