The Real McKay

by Maya Rock
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Illustration by Gary KelleyOur detective story concerns not Clouseau and the Pink Panther, but Cloutier and the Pink Palace — the nickname for the pink-walled rooms of Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It was there, in the spring of 2009, that Jean-Christophe Cloutier, an intern archivist, was helping to organize the papers of renegade publisher Samuel L. Roth. As Cloutier catalogued another of Roth’s floppy, flaking black binders, he paused, struck by the white card pasted on the cover. The card bore an author’s name and a title. Inside the folder was a yellowed manuscript.

Cloutier was familiar with Claude McKay, the manuscript’s apparent author and a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. In 2000, Cloutier, a Québécois Canadian, had spent a summer volunteering in a library in Linstead, Jamaica, where he read Songs of Jamaica, McKay’s first book of poetry. Later, in grad school at SUNY–Buffalo, he encountered McKay’s prose, including his most famous work, the 1928 novel Home to Harlem. But the manuscript in his hands, titled Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, rang no bells.

Cloutier knew immediately that he might have uncovered a diamond. “It was exciting, it was great, but it was also a moment of uncertainty, because Samuel Roth — well, he did some things in his career.” Roth was best known for publishing, in 1930, a pirated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in violation of federal obscenity laws. “He’d been convicted of crimes and had done some jail time,” says Cloutier. “You don’t know what this guy might have been up to.” Roth, who attended Columbia briefly before the First World War, had also serialized Joyce’s Ulysses without permission, and published a fraudulent Nietzsche memoir, My Sister and I.

Cloutier was better acquainted with Roth and McKay than your average intern archivist. That’s because he was also a doctoral candidate in English specializing in twentieth-century American literature, hired by Rare Books as part of a program begun in 2007 in which graduate-student interns process Columbia’s archive backlogs, an arrangement that exposes students to primary sources while lending the archives the benefit of their scholarly sensitivity.

Now Cloutier had to determine if this manuscript was what it appeared to be: an unpublished McKay novel.

By day, he continued organizing the collection, only offhandedly mentioning the discovery to a coworker (“Hey, there’s a Claude McKay novel in here.” “Oh, yeah, what is it?” “Well, it’s Amiable with Big Teeth.” “I haven’t read that one.”), while keeping an eye out for related materials. By night, he searched for signs of Amiable in biographies, on the Library of Congress website, and on the wider Web.

Nothing.

The archive, however, held some clues: two letters between Roth and McKay, and a book contract dated 1941 — though for a different title. With this evidence, Cloutier went to his adviser, Brent Hayes Edwards, a professor of English and comparative literature and an expert on the Harlem Renaissance. Edwards was, of course, intrigued — he’d always wondered why McKay had stopped writing fiction. The scholars photocopied the manuscript and took a weekend to read it. The following Monday, they compared notes. The manuscript bore several stamps of McKay’s writing, among them the use of the term “Aframerican,” the theme of labor agitation, and a character type that Cloutier describes as “a streetwise guy with political wisdom.” Cloutier and Edwards agreed that it was likely the real thing.

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