Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth: How a Hidden Manuscript’s Discovery Brings 1930s Harlem to LifeAuthor photo by Carl Van Vechten / The Van Vechten Trust / Beinecke Library at Yale Books Features Claude Mckay
On a summer day in 2009, graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier stumbled upon an unpublished novel’s manuscript in the Columbia University archives. The manuscript’s author? Claude McKay, a celebrated poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Cloutier’s miraculous find must have seemed too good to be true considering where he found it—in the unprocessed papers of Samuel Roth, a sometime-poet, renegade publisher, notorious literary bootlegger and defendant in one of the most consequential obscenity cases ever to reach the Supreme Court. Though a champion of modernist writers, Roth had no known connection with McKay. But there, among Roth’s motley assortment of prison letters, legal documents, family photos, pin-up posters and racy etchings, sat an undiscovered treasure under a faded title page bearing the legend: “AMIABLE WITH BIG TEETH, A novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem by Claude McKay, Author of HOME TO HARLEM.”
Cloutier had unearthed a scathing political satire rich in historical detail, razor-sharp commentary and vivid characters, written in 1941 but published for the first time this week. As the nearly eight-year interval between the novel’s discovery and its eventual arrival in print suggests, Amiable with Big Teeth’s journey to publication had a few twists and turns.
When he first encountered the manuscript in 2009, Cloutier didn’t entirely grasp the significance of what he’d found. Now an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, at the time Cloutier was working toward his Ph.D. and serving as a paid intern in the archives, tasked with organizing and annotating Roth’s 54 boxes of papers. Cloutier assumed he’d found an early manuscript of a book later published under a different title. He reported it to his advisor, Brent Hayes Edwards, a Columbia English professor with a specialty in African-American and African diaspora literature.
“He brought it to me because he knew I knew McKay and had written on McKay,” Edwards says in an interview with Paste. “‘I’d never heard of it.”
At that moment, the detective work began. Because no McKay book with that title (or anything resembling it) had ever appeared in publication, or even received a mention in a McKay biography, the manuscript raised as many questions as answers. The quest to authenticate it—to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it was, indeed, a lost McKay novel—took Edwards and Cloutier to numerous archives from Cambridge to Atlanta in search of letters, documents, records, anything that would fill in the story behind this lost novel by a major modernist author now 60 years dead.
Eventually, a letter to McKay from longtime friend and colleague Max Eastman—saying “I’m perfectly delighted with your book” and quoting passages from the manuscript they’d found—identified Amiable as a novel written for and rejected by publisher E.F. Dutton in 1941. But it took multiple summers to crack the case.
“I’d done a lot of research on McKay’s time in France in the late ‘20s and McKay in Morocco in the early ‘30s. I’d read through all his correspondence from that period,” Edwards says. “I had never paid much attention to the letters he was writing in the spring of 1941. We didn’t find those letters until we started trying to document when he wrote this and prove that he did it.”
Edwards and Cloutier announced the manuscript’s authenticity in September 2012, following a thorough review of their research by three experts in the field. At that time, one of those experts, Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., proclaimed Amiable with Big Teeth a “major discovery [that] dramatically expands the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers and, obviously, novels by Claude McKay.”
McKay’s Controversial Early Novels
McKay is perhaps best known outside of modern literary circles for his 1919 sonnet “If We Must Die”—as succinct and enduring a declaration of defiance to racial subjugation as any ever written in America. He stands among the most accomplished—and contentious—figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a period in the 1920s and ‘30s in which the emergence of a talented generation of (mostly) American writers and artists of African descent coincided with an explosion of white attraction to the perceived primitivism of Jazz Age Harlem. This confluence led to unprecedented patronage for black artists, opportunities cynically—if accurately—characterized by McKay as the “Negro vogue.”
As a Harlem Renaissance author, McKay is difficult to pigeonhole. Throughout his body of work and his career as an artist and a public figure, McKay’s ideas about politics and racial solidarity proved far more complex and controversial than “If We Must Die” might suggest.
McKay’s most commercially successful novel, Home to Harlem (1928), dazzled readers with its rendering of Harlem’s frenzied nightlife and the tensions among black Pullman porters working on long-haul trains. Though now canonized alongside the celebrated fiction of contemporaries Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, Home to Harlem drew harsh criticism early on from a number of African-American critics, among them Souls of Black Folk author W.E.B. DuBois. The NAACP co-founder argued that McKay’s hedonistic protagonist reinforced negative stereotypes of African-American men, declaring that reading Home to Harlem left him feeling “distinctly unclean and in need of a bath.”
“The scandal of Home to Harlem in 1928 is that most people in what became known as the Harlem Renaissance were choosing protagonists who were lawyers or doctors, very genteel or educated,” Cloutier explains in an interview with Paste. “But [McKay] was more interested in depicting what he called the ‘underworld’ of Harlem, so he was going against the grain.”
Critics hoping for more “genteel” images of African-American life had little use for Banjo, McKay’s second novel and arguably his finest work, which came out the following year. Banjo delivered a portrait of transnational brotherhood among sailors, dockworkers and jazz musicians in 1920s France, revealing ugly truths about racism McKay had experienced firsthand in Marseilles. In some ways akin to a Pan-African Cannery Row, the novel highlighted a cross-cultural underclass cobbling together a community in which they could debate their political differences and make art.
McKay’s last published novel, the Jamaican-themed Banana Bottom, appeared in 1933 with little commercial success. “I have always been puzzled that he stopped writing fiction,” Edwards says. “That was the narrative we had [before Amiable with Big Teeth]. I knew he got sick in the 1940s. I knew there were other things going on, but it just seemed odd to me that someone who was so clearly a committed fiction writer would just drop the form in the last 15 years of his life.”
McKay Comes Home to Harlem
McKay originally hailed from Jamaica and briefly lived in Harlem before writing his three published novels abroad, returning in 1934 to a waning Harlem Renaissance. His most popular publication in the following years was an autobiography appropriately titled A Long Way From Home (1937), but the majority of his post-Banjo books never sold well. McKay eked out a modest living penning a column in the Harlem weekly Amsterdam News; writing political pieces for various periodicals; and by qualifying for a position on the government-subsidized Federal Writers Project (FWP) beginning in 1936.
“Like most blacks on the [FWP],” writes McKay biographer Wayne F. Cooper in his 1987 biography Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Rennaissance, “he concentrated on the contemporary history of New York’s black population.” The FWP work found for McKay researching dozens of biographical sketches on “notable Harlemites,” engaging him with the local political currents of the era.
“During his years with the FWP,” Cooper writes, “[McKay] also wrote several articles in which he clearly stated his position on a variety of interrelated contemporary issues, ranging from communism and the Popular Front to the present and future of blacks within American society.”
“It is in these articles and editorials that McKay first begins to articulate what becomes the increasingly fervent anti-communist stance that is a key feature of his late career,” Cloutier and Edwards write in the introduction to Amiable with Big Teeth.
During this time, McKay organized fellow writers of the waning Harlem Renaissance into a Negro Writers Guild. But his efforts were met with resistance from the Communist Party, which pushed for integrated organizations emphasizing class solidarity over racial identity, and placing little importance on black leadership.
These concerns come front and center in McKay’s Harlem: Negro Metropolis, a collection of essays published shortly before he began writing Amiable with Big Teeth. But it’s in Amiable that his anti-communist writing really catches fire.
Enter Amiable with Big Teeth, Harlem Roman à Clef
“Ostensibly about the complex world-historical dynamics involved in the emergence of the ‘Aid-to-Ethiopia’ organizations in Harlem during the Italo-Abyssinian crisis,” Cloutier wrote in a 2013 issue of MODERNISM/modernity, “Amiable is McKay’s most realized literary expression of his desire for greater group unity among African Americans.”
The novel begins at a flashpoint in this crisis, when two aid-to-Ethiopia organizations battle for the hearts and minds of concerned Harlemites. From the opening scene, a fictionalized version of a massive Ethiopian aid rally held at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1935, McKay weaves fact and gripping invention. On one side of Amiable’s conflict stands the black-run Hands to Ethiopia, chaired by Pablo Peixota, a dedicated community leader and former numbers runner now the owner of legitimate businesses in Harlem. Allied with Peixota are fellow Harlemite Dorsey Flagg and Lij Tekla Alamaya, an Ethiopian envoy with a letter of introduction from the embattled Emperor.
Hands to Ethiopia’s efforts are undermined by the novel’s villain, Maxim Tasan of the White Friends of Ethiopia, a front organization for the Communist-allied Popular Front. As the story unfolds, the novel expands to encompass subterfuge, romance, the surprise appearance of an Ethiopian princess and an array of soapbox speeches in disparate voices.
As a roman à clef written just a few years after the period it covers, Amiable with Big Teeth reflects that era with an intimacy impossible to capture in a later time—a miraculous feat for a book discovered seven decades later. Questions remain as to why it never saw the light of day for 70 years, and those questions may never be answered. Yet it inevitably recasts the narrative of Claude McKay’s later years—altering our understanding of a novelist who seemingly wrote his last novel 15 years before his death—and it’s a satisfying rewrite. The McKay of Amiable with Big Teeth “was a fiction writer coming home to one of his main modes,” Edwards says. “He’s one of the towering novelists of that period. It’s not surprising that he went back to his novels.”
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.