The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians

The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians

The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians

The Shadowed Country: Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians

Synopsis

One of the most important voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay is largely recognized for his work during the 1920s, which includes a major collection of poems, Harlem Shadows, as well as a critically acclaimed novel, Home to Harlem. But McKay was never completely comfortable with his literary reputation during this period. Throughout his world travels, he saw himself as an English lyricist.

In this compelling examination of the life and works of this complex poet, novelist, journalist, and short story writer, Josh Gosciak sheds light on McKay's literary contributions beyond his interactions with Harlem Renaissance artists and writers. Working within English literary traditions, McKay crafted a verse out of hybridity and diaspora. Gosciak shows how he reinvigorated a modern pastoral through his encounters with some of the major aesthetic and political movements of the late Victorian and early modern periods.

Exploring new archival material as well as many of McKay's lesser known poetic works, The Shadowed Country provides a unique interpretation of the writings of this major author.

Excerpt

I was never happy in Harlem, but I was always excited, rest
less, and enjoyed the excitement.

—Claude McKay

THIS WORK LOOKS at the amazing times in the life of the poet Claude McKay, one of the important voices to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. I refract that voice, however, through some of the dominant discourses in the late Victorian and early modern periods, such as internationalism, pacifism, the Arts and Crafts movement, decadence, Fabian socialism, and sexual rebellion, to reach an interpretation of McKay as a modern English poet.

The life of this author begins in the serene Jamaican hillside, where he grew up reading Shakespeare, Dickens, and mid-nineteenth-century popular romances and science books while apprenticing as a wheelwright and devoting time to his family’s farm near the city of Kingston. It is in Jamaica that the poet met English expatriate and garden enthusiast Walter Jekyll and encountered Sydney Olivier, the governor of Jamaica from 1907 until 1913, whose brand of Fabian socialism, transplanted to the colonies, made a profound impression on the ambitions of the young writer. McKay published his first poem in 1909, “Hard Times,” a critique of the social and economic conditions in Jamaica under an earlier harsh regime. He continued to write and eventually published two volumes of poetry in 1912, Songs of Jamaica, about peasant folkways, and Constab Ballads. Throughout his life he viewed himself as “primitive, restless, impatient, with a flair for beautiful things that I love to see as rare flowers among weeds.” And he, in his way, became a strange bloom among modernity’s outcrops.

But poetry was not McKay’s route out of Jamaica and into Harlem. He was expected to follow in the family’s tradition of farming, banana cultivation, and was shipped off on a United Fruit Company freighter to the States, where he attended Tuskegee Institute. He found the all-black school’s racial manners, however, too restricting. He tried a semester or two at Kansas State College, where he continued his studies in agriculture, but in 1914 decided on New . . .

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