Lost and Found
A political satire by an important Harlem Renaissance author,
rejected for publication in 1941, finally appears in print 75
BY DONNA SEAMAN
The youngest of 11 children in a Jamaican farming family, Claude McKay (1889–1948) was a published poet as a teenager. After he made his way to New York, he became part of the Harlem Renaissance, even as he wrote his first three novels in France (Home
to Harlem, 1928), Spain and Morocco (Banjo,1929), and Tangier (Banana Bottom, 1933).
Back in New York, he eked out a living working for the Federal Writers’ Project, along with
Dorothy West, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, while writing articles and nonfiction
books, including Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), the last title published before his death.
In 2009, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a doctoral candidate and intern at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, came across a 300-page manuscript that he and his
dissertation adviser Brent Hayes Edwards eventually authenticated as a heretofore unknown
work by McKay: Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists
and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. The two scholars report on their findings in their fascinating introduction to the first edition of McKay’s rescued fourth novel, reporting that
McKay was so determined to complete the book quickly that he left the distractions of New
York City for a farmhouse in Maine as soon as he received an advance from his publisher,
E. P. Dutton. But when he submitted the manuscript in July 1941, Dutton declined to publish it, and with that, the paper trail came to an end, leaving unsolved the mystery of what
happened to the manuscript during the difficult last years of McKay’s life, as he struggled
with financial woes and illness. The novel’s remarkable discovery and prominent publication
is a propitious event of tremendous historical and literary significance.
McKay’s zealous political satire begins on a Sunday afternoon in 1934 as people fill Seventh
Avenue in Harlem, galvanized to action by Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. The elite has created competing charitable organizations to raise funds for the besieged, poorly armed African
nation, including Hands to Ethiopia, the brain child of Pablo Peixota, who made his fortune
“in the notorious numbers game.” He is proud to be hosting a young Ethiopian prince and
envoy, Lij Tekla Alamaya, who catches the eager eye of Pablo’s mischievous stepdaughter, Sera-phine. But the church event Pablo has orchestrated is hijacked by the flamboyant Professor
Koazhy, the controversial leader of a secretive group known as the Senegambians. Worse yet
are Pablo’s troubles with the White Friends of Ethiopia and the enigmatic, coldly manipulative
Maxim Tasan, a rabid recruiter for the Communist party, which has its own warring factions.
McKay devotes a nearly stultifying number of pages to the battle between the Trotsky-
ites and Stalinists, a hot issue then even as fascism and Nazism gathered strength overseas.
Though McKay introduces intriguing characters and brings readers into enticing situa-
tions—dinner parties, clandestine meetings, and nightclub parties and confrontations, the
dialogue descends into tedious diatribes. Still, this overly talky, often stilted mix of political
critique and low-flame potboiler is smart, daring, and brimming with arresting insights.
Such as Alamaya’s outsider perspective on American racism, and Seraphine’s wish: “I want
McKay choreographs hoaxes, betrayals, showdowns, and a highly questionable sexual
encounter while tackling thorny questions about African Americans’ sense of identity and
heritage, interracial alliances and marriages, social class, and the impact on Harlem by
global politics. The novel’s provocative subtitle is alluded to in a thunderous sermon by
the Reverend Zebulon Trawl, in which he beseeches God: “show me the way to defeat the
machinations of the strong white ones against thy poor black sheep.” Many readers will
relate to Pablo’s response to the political turmoil dividing his community and the world at-
large: “he reasoned that the times were fantastic in a way that was beyond his imagination.
Principles had become meaningless.”
Why was Amiable with Big Teeth rejected? Perhaps Dutton didn’t want to invest in its much
needed revision, or McKay wasn’t willing or able to do the necessary rewrites. Dutton may
also have passed on it because of the escalating war in Europe. McKay’s vehement criticism of
Stalin and his supporters would not have played well as the U.S. looked to the Soviet Union
as an ally against Germany. Whatever the reason, now that the novel is finally, even miracu-
lously, available, McKay will be more widely recognized as, to quote Cloutier and Edwards,
“one of the most important literary and political writers of the interwar period.”
Amiable with Big
By Claude McKay.
Feb. 2017. 352p. Penguin, $28