Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

By Victor A. Kramer; Robert A. Russ | Go to book overview

"THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME":
THE CARNIVAL OF BLACK LIFE IN CLAUDE MCKAY'S
HOME TO HARLEM

ROBERT A. RUSS

"There's no place like home"--this phrase, so much a part of American culture, recalls the schmaltzy "Be it ever so humble" and evokes sentimental images of Dorothy and Glenda, the Good Witch of the North, but it takes on an especially bitter irony when applied to Harlem Renaissance novelist Claude McKay Home to Harlem, for instead of reading it as a sentimental wish to return home because no other place is as good, we read a desperate cry that there is no home to return to--it doesn't exist--and no place even "like" a home. Such feelings of homelessness, alienation, and disenfranchisement indeed provided a writer of McKay's vision the vital material necessary for creating art, not polemic, in his analysis and celebration of Black character and culture in America.

The reader of the Harlem Renaissance literature observes that Claude McKay's works were often noticeably more artistically successful than his contemporaries' and less concerned with propagandistic messages and more with the interaction between people and cultures. Indicative of McKay artistic concerns is the epigram for his Selected Poems, a single-couplet poem called "The Word," which echoes St. John's Gospel and rings with spiritual suggestions inherent in language: "Oh spread Thy words like green fields, watered, fresh, / The Word is God and the Word is made flesh!" 1 These lines suggest McKay was a writer who perceived the power in the written word. Therefore in reading McKay's works, Mikhail Bakhtin's literary theories are especially useful. Bakhtin's theories of carnivalization, monologic and dialogic discourse, and "official" and "unofficial" culture have proven useful to today's critics in elucidating the interactive

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