Home to Harlem

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A picaresque novel by Claude McKay, appeared in 1928, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Its unabashed celebration of Harlem lower-class life generated great controversy among black critics and reformers, some of whom believed McKay was catering to stereotyped portrayals of blacks. The controversy helped propel Home to Harlem onto New York's best-seller lists, the first novel by a black to achieve such popularity.

Home to Harlem is the story of Jake Brown, McKay's natural man, whose primitive virtues and folk wisdom sustain him in the unnatural industrial world of the urban northeast. McKay's vision of an essentially healthy rural black folk struggling to stay afloat in a hostile sea of urban capitalism owed much to his own rural Jamaican background and to his interest in the works of D. H. Lawrence. McKay had also been strongly influenced by African and other “primitive” folk arts, as well as the revivals of peasant and folk themes in Jewish, Russian, and Irish literatures.

In Home to Harlem, Jake Brown deserts the American Army in wartime France. After the war, he returns to Harlem and works as an assistant cook on the Pennsylvania railroad. He befriends Ray, a Haitian waiter on his dining car. Ray's formal education and literary aspirations provide a contrast to the highly intense but limited activities of Jake and the other characters, almost all of whom are single working people. There are no families or children in Home to Harlem.

McKay's often lyrical descriptions of lower-class Harlem and its types are discordantly offset by a strong autobiographical element in Home to Harlem that depicts a harsher, more brutal world of loneliness, labor exploitation, violence, and frustration. For example, Ray, McKay's fictional alter-ego, thinks of segregated Harlem as a congested “pig-pen,” no fit place in which to marry or to start a family. The cumulative evidence of Home to Harlem, with its contradictory mixture of primitivism, autobiography, and social realism set within a picaresque mode, suggests that the enormous disorder and despair found in today's “underclass” has a history that goes back decades further than critics often suggest.

Home to Harlem was the first of four volumes (Banjo, 1929; Gingertown, 1932; and Banana Bottom, 1933) in which McKay progressively defined the nature of the modern world, the position of blacks in it, and his own wanderings as an expatriate poet and writer. In all his fiction, rural black folk culture stands upon its own foundations, in some sense independent of and in opposition to an urbanized, industrialized, mechanistic, and denatured Western civilization. Few African American works have aroused more unease among black middle-class reformers and critics than Home to Harlem. The literary primitivism of the 1920s, of which McKay was a part, largely expired with the decade, and his novels were little read in succeeding years. But the relevance of the various issues raised in Home to Harlem and McKay's other fictional works remain pertinent.

James R. Giles, Claude McKay, 1976.Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance, a Biography, 1987.


Subjects: Literature.

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