The Real McKay

by Maya Rock
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In July 2009, they approached McKay’s estate, seeking permission to publish a scholarly edition of the manuscript. But the estate’s lawyers demanded firmer proof of the novel’s authenticity. Their request was not unusual: the myriad frauds and forgeries in the art world have led to a more rigorous authentication of all art, including rare books and manuscripts.

Cloutier and Edwards began a quest for McKay correspondence that led them to archives across the country (Indiana, Emory, Syracuse), and soon more clues began to appear. They saw references to a new novel McKay was writing in the early 1940s — the right time frame. They learned of a contract between the publishing firm E. P. Dutton and McKay for a book that was never published. And finally, at Yale, they found their smoking gun: a letter from writer Max Eastman to McKay. In the letter, Eastman gives McKay feedback on his latest novel, pulling out specific lines for comment that Cloutier and Edwards then found in Amiable. This was, as Cloutier puts it, “hard archival evidence” that the novel was McKay’s.

In late 2011, two and a half years after the initial discovery, Cloutier and Edwards returned to the estate lawyers with their additional proof. The estate sent the manuscript out to three McKay experts. In May 2012, all three gave their final verdict: the manuscript was authentic. Amiable is likely the novel McKay had under contract with Dutton. Cloutier and Edwards found no letter or other document explaining why the company never published it. According to Cloutier, McKay’s sales record wasn’t great at the time, so it’s possible that Dutton might have feared a flop.

But that was seventy years ago. “McKay’s posthumous reputation has never been higher,” says Bill Maxwell ’84CC, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the experts consulted by the estate. “This manuscript couldn’t have chosen a better moment to come to light.”

One reason McKay’s work might be particularly resonant now is because he was, Cloutier says, a “transnational figure.” Born in Jamaica, McKay traveled the world, writing and making connections in leftist circles. In fact, McKay largely missed the Harlem of the Harlem Renaissance because he was out of the country. Cloutier finds parallels between McKay’s works, with their transnational characters, and those of contemporary writers Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith. Though Amiable is set in 1936 Harlem, it’s very much about the world, a satire that takes on Communism and explores the impact of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia on African-Americans and showcases Harlem life in a documentarian style.

“I’d say it’s McKay’s most mature novel, in which he makes his famous problems with plot work for his narrative rather than impede it,” Cloutier says. “The novel is wonderfully memorable satire and McKay’s most realized literary expression of his desire for greater group unity among African-Americans.”

A dozen years after reading Songs of Jamaica in a Jamaican library, Cloutier finds his life bound to McKay’s: the unearthed novel merited a chapter in Cloutier’s dissertation on authors and their archives, and he and Edwards will be jointly writing an introduction to a scholarly edition of Amiable.

 

Jean-Christophe Cloutier ’10GSAS is completing his PhD in English and comparative literature at Columbia. His essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Cinema Journal, Public Books, Critical Survey of Graphic Novels, A Time for the Humanities, and Umbr(a).

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