Claude McKay in Our Time: A Conversation with Gary Holcomb and William J. Maxwell on “Romance in Marseille”
By Eric NewmanOctober 23, 2020
The publication earlier this year of McKay’s Romance in Marseille (Penguin Classics), an unpublished novel written in the late 1920s and early 1930s heretofore primarily known only to McKay scholars, was a long labor of love for editors Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell. The publication also marks a kind of renaissance for McKay, whose literary career was revived again in 2017 with the publication of a just-discovered manuscript titled Amiable with Big Teeth (Penguin Classics).
Romance in Marseille is at once familiar and distinct to McKay’s oeuvre and offers interesting points of entry and departure for fans of modernist and African American literature (not that such labels are ever easily applied in McKay’s case). Set in the French port city of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age, the novel centers on the case of Lafala, a West African sailor who, after losing his legs to frostbite while stowing away on a merchant vessel, stands to receive a tremendous amount of money in a legal suit against the shipping company. Happy to be back in the port, Lafala rekindles his romance with Aslima, the Moroccan prostitute whom he fell in love with years earlier, and falls back in with a gang of friends (and some enemies) as they pursue pleasure and freedom in the kaleidoscopic haze of their urban demimonde.
While Romance carries over many of McKay’s signature tropes — the representation of an urban world of sex workers, dock workers, political organizers, and pleasure-seekers scratching out their lives and loves — the novel is distinct in its decentering of the usual engagement with debates in radical left-wing politics in favor of a nuanced love story about the pitfalls of racial capitalism. It is unusual as well in its matter-of-fact representation of queer relationships that become the most heroic and celebrated relationships in the novel, a departure not only from McKay’s previous inclusion of queer subjects in earlier novels but also from the ways that queer people were represented more generally in literature from the period.
I caught up with Holcomb and Maxwell via phone early this summer, at a moment that feels much further away in the temporal dilation of our pandemic times, to talk about their work in bringing the novel to print, the growing interest in McKay’s work in recent years, and why this writer, marginalized in the canon for too long, may have finally found his moment in the new millennium.
ERIC NEWMAN: One of the interesting opportunities in publishing Romance in Marseille now is that many readers will be discovering McKay for the first time. Can you talk a bit about what kind of writer McKay was and where he fits — or, as is often the case with McKay, how he doesn’t fit — in the canons of 20th-century American literature, modernist fiction, and African American writing?
GARY EDWARD HOLCOMB: I see McKay in and out of the modernist moment. He’s in it insomuch as he’s responding to the modernist writers, but there’s a part in A Long Way from Home, when he’s talking about being in Paris and he’s writing about the Lost Generation and the modernist artists, and he describes himself as being on the sidelines of all that. He’s observing it; he has a detachment from it. Like many of the second-generation Harlem Renaissance writers, like Thurman and Hughes, he’s absorbing so much from what’s going on in this modernist movement and reforming it for his own aesthetic.
Can you say more about that?
GEH: I’ll give a literary example. In both Home to Harlem and Romance in Marseille, he reuses the idea of the emasculation from Hemingway’s mid-1920s Lost Generation novel The Sun Also Rises and then uses that against what Hemingway is doing. He takes fundamental ideas of alienation and fragmentation that the modernists are articulating and translates that into a Black Atlantic, Black transitional perspective. He’s Blackening modernist art and even making these ideas apply more fruitfully to Black experience than they do to white experience.
McKay was most definitely in the same circles as Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois (though they never really much got along!), Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others whom we remember and read today. Why hasn’t he occupied a more central position in the conversation about not just the Harlem Renaissance, but 20th-century African American literature more generally?
WILLIAM J. MAXWELL: For one simple thing, it hasn’t been that easy to find his material. There are university press paperback reproductions of his originally published novels issued in the 1980s. There was an earlier wave of republication in the late 1960s and early 1970s — Wayne Cooper’s collection The Passion of Claude McKay is excellent — but those books became scarce outside of large libraries and used bookstores. Until fairly recently, the poetry — beyond the heavily selected Selected Poems — was next-to-impossible to find. There was a publication drought and an opportunity-to-read drought.
Another thing is that McKay was someone constitutionally dedicated to abandoning all the movements he was centrally involved with. He liked batting around Harlem Renaissance ideas — particularly what he called their “Aframerican” incarnation — at a critical distance. So he’s central to that Renaissance in plowing new and fashionable ground, but he keeps one foot — sometimes literally two — outside of it. Geographically and personally, he migrated beyond range of the Harlem Renaissance and, after his sojourns in Europe and Africa, came back to the United States when it’s over as a lucrative venture. He absented himself from the scene of the Harlem Renaissance as a social presence, but also as a literary one, in the sense that his once-disappearing texts, in the most concrete ways, fell outside of our capacity to easily historicize that movement.
GEH: What Bill is saying about the Harlem Renaissance and McKay at once distancing himself and accepting his location in it is a significant theme in his writing. I also wonder if the stars of the Renaissance, like Hughes and Larsen — and I’m not diminishing them in any way — have been translated into our time more fluidly than it is possible to translate McKay. I’m not suggesting that Hughes has been misrepresented, but that in some ways he has been translated for and adapted to different moments, starting during the 1960s. Hurston was transmuted in the 1970s and ’80s, when critics and others elided aspects of her conservative politics to recreate her as a Black feminist. Don’t get me wrong. Hurston is an enormously important figure. Their Eyes Were Watching God is probably the crowning achievement of the Harlem Renaissance novel. Though, perhaps the publication of Romance in Marseille may shake up McKay’s reception and historicization within the movement now.
What’s so generative about McKay is the way that he moves so fluidly or promiscuously between identities. He was always between nations, continents, and identities, which is productive and interesting, but it often puts him at odds with our tendencies to divide literature into concrete national and periodized segments. He seems to inscribe himself in different contexts but never remains stuck or faithful to any of them.
WJM: That’s well said. I think he liked living between identities. This is overdetermined, but I think that involved a sense of being Black American and not in the United States, of being queer and not in what was an essentially bisexual life. I think that for McKay a sense of in-betweenness matched his human chemistry, but also represented a productive perceptual and political position.
He often acted as a political translator, for one thing, between Black radical traditions, a Black nationalism that emerges from the Caribbean, and the larger Comintern vision of anti-colonial, post-racial communism. McKay is a translator in the realm of 20th-century radical politics as he is affectively and aesthetically.
As he’s writing Romance in Marseille, his position as a translator is becoming less and less tenable in everyday life. He’s sort of caught, this time, in the usually productive margins. He’s not even living in Tangier’s officially mixed International Zone, as Gary clarifies in his work: his house is just outside of it.
I know there’s a long history of your work with the McKay estate to get Romance in Marseille into print. Could you give readers a sense of how long you’ve been working on this particular project?
GEH: I didn’t discover the originally archived text. The shorter version has been available in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library since the 1940s. Sometime along the way, the longer, probably later version appeared in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture collection when his daughter, Hope Virtue McKay, contributed it, we think.
Like the few other scholars who have known about it, I first read about Romance in Wayne Cooper’s 1987 biography Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. When I started researching for Code Name Sasha in the late 1990s, I contacted the Schomburg and requested a copy, and I got a microfilm of the Schomburg’s complete McKay file! I read Romance in typescript and knew it was amazing and wanted to write about it. It had barely gotten any attention aside from the brief mentions in Cooper’s biography. Eventually, I got the idea of publishing it. Diana Lachatanere, who was a research librarian at the Schomburg, told me that it was in a legal dispute with Exeter Press, and that it would probably never become available. I periodically checked in with Diana about its legal status over the years, only to find that it was still unavailable, until of course somewhat recently. Being academics, Bill and I thought we would work with an academic press, and talked to Philip Leventhal at Columbia, who was quite interested in pursuing the project. However, the McKay estate had hired a New York literary agent who wanted to try for a commercial press, presumably to make more money for the estate. In any case, I was thrilled to be working with Penguin Classics.
WJM: Just to clarify, what Gary’s talking about is a decade of work on his part. I can tell you that Gary is very persistent — and that it also helps to be old and (fortunately) securely employed. This was work that could not have been done over the course of graduate school or an assistant professorship; a lucky longevity in the profession was necessary to be able to keep at this.
What happened [at Penguin Classics] was that J. C. Cloutier and Brent Edwards’s Amiable with Big Teeth came along in 2017 — also after hard work and serious struggle — and proved that there was a market for rediscovering McKay’s novels. Not to say flattering things about our lovely publishers — who have been lovely — but Penguin Classics took a bit of a leap with this, as they did with Amiable, though that did well and the publicity around the book wasn’t bad for them.
The publication of Romance in such an accessible way in a semi-official transatlantic series depended on a new Penguin editor, Elda Rotor, who has a decidedly non-Eurocentric perspective on what a “classic” can be. Romance in Marseille is a newly published book that no one could ever have handed down through the generations, but in her understanding it had a cultural and geographic reach that pre-qualified it a classic. The Black archive and McKay scholars had already discovered it, but a publishing apparatus had to decide that it was worth discovering, and that’s what finally happened.
Romance picks up in Marseille where McKay’s previous novel, Banjo, left off. Both novels are very similar in their representation of the seedy underworld of Marseille. Why did McKay keep returning to Marseille as a site for literary representation?
GEH: I think Marseille meant something to him because of its outsiderness, which was reflected in his feeling of being separated from the movements that we mentioned earlier. Marseille represented to him more of a home because all the characters in his writing about that place are dislocated and alienated from their homes. So, what I think he liked about Marseille was the comfort he felt in the city due to his own feelings of not belonging and dislocation.
WJM: Right, Marseille is a home of dislocation. It’s one of the European ports where Africa is almost visible over the waters. I think it’s McKay’s model of the true if disregarded capital of the Black Atlantic; one built not on the more or less symbolic exchanges of Paris, but rather a port of call for the Black working class. Marseille allowed him to underline the cultural and political centrality of Black workers — sailors, dockers, prostitutes, precarious political organizers — in a way that New York or Paris wouldn’t allow with the same flair and concentration. It allowed him to mix and match transitions between European imperial capitals and African colonial spaces. Also, more crudely, what he’s trying to do in Romance in Marseille is cook up a best seller, with plenty of local flavor, from what he saw as the exotic “bouillabaisse” of the city.
So how does Romance mark itself as different from McKay’s other books? It strikes me that its representation of homosexuality and internationalism, and certainly its view of Black internationalism, feel distinct both within McKay’s writing and within writing from that period more generally.
WJM: This is a dangerous way to phrase it, but if Romance in Marseille is not exactly a post-political text, it’s something meaningfully close. The novel imagines what happens when the Black diaspora seeks to feel itself, to love itself into shared being, but without any sure political scaffolding. There’s lot of stuff going on in Romance with regard to formal politics, of course: you have Garveyite talk and slogans, you have various forms of socialism, you have communist organizers — who forthrightly admit they’re communist organizers — you have visiting American NAACP liberals, all of whom forget these differences when jazz or beguine is played in the Black melting pot of the Café Tout-va-Bien (where, despite the name, not everything goes well). We have a number of highly sympathetic communist spokespeople in Romance who are represented as powerless figures, politically, even as they’re saying just and searching things and are never mocked. I think that McKay, as his own anti-Stalinism grows, is trying to project a Black internationalism without a brand-name politics. What happens when a character like Lafala, the disabled protagonist, is enabled to travel for love and money, no Black Star line in sight around the Black diaspora, legless thanks to colonial brutality, but with plenty of cash? How does he go back to Africa? In this novel, he winds up going back to Africa alone.
Is the post-political bent of Romance a result of trying to write a best seller? Or is this McKay, in a later career, thinking about the failure of ideologies?
WJM: If McKay was going to respect the suggestions of the African American book market in 1933, he might have written a more thoroughly communist book. Richard Wright hadn’t quite emerged yet — his first novel, what became Lawd Today, was completed in 1935 — but visions of Black workers rooting themselves in the soil and the factory were the coming order of the day. It was not a moment when forms of leftist investment would necessarily have needed to be camouflaged. When McKay returns to Harlem in 1934, the Party is approaching its height of influence in African American intellectual life but he has already decided that Stalinism has tainted that rendezvous. Romance isn’t yet an anti-communist book, but it’s a kind of post-communist book, despite all of its sincere, uncaricatured communists. He sees and presents them as one comparatively powerless fragment within Black working-class life.
GEH: I agree with Bill. I would say that Romance clearly says that ideologies are not going to work, and that organized versions of ideologies simply fail. However, the appearance of the queer characters may be the key. Through them, I think that McKay wants to say that there has to be a place for love, for sex, for the body, if we’re going to have a revolutionary politics. On top of that is also the most despised class of women, that is, prostitutes, who are seen as heroic and admirable in Romance. This novel differs so vividly from the others, especially Home to Harlem and Banjo, in that it foregrounds not just the female characters, but also that they are sex workers, one of whom is clearly and openly a lesbian. He’s trying to work through how to imagine the lives of the disregarded people, the despised class of people — he wants to think about their role in history.
You’ve gotten lots of positive response to the publication of Romance. Why do you think McKay and his work seem to be resonating so strongly in recent years?
GEH: I’m still somewhat puzzled by the astonishing popular response to the Penguin Classic. The two examples of this that I find most interesting, insofar as they make me think about what effect the book is having, appeared in the Jamaican Gleaner, where McKay published some of his earliest poetry, and in Vanity Fair. The Gleaner came out with an editorial saying that the publication of Romance is an opportunity to rediscover McKay, who has been lost to younger generations of Jamaican readers. But the Gleaner also says that the publication of this book is an opportunity for a new national discussion about the problem of homophobia in Jamaica. That put the context for the reception of the book into an entirely different light for me, and I began to think about how Romance could have an effect that I couldn’t have anticipated. And then Vanity Fair named it as one of their chosen books for getting through the pandemic. This book has taken on a meaning far beyond what I could have imagined.
WJM: This book was written not only during the first, deepest wave of an economic catastrophe, the Great Depression, but also in a kind of personal quarantine, when McKay was suffering from and brooding about a resurgence of venereal disease. A needful sensory memory of queer community flows from that experience.
McKay remains, despite being less well known, uniquely timeless. He’s incredibly progressive for his time, especially with regard to queer politics, but what he’s talking about in Banjo and elsewhere — about telling one’s own stories, about how global capitalism functions (and doesn’t), about the complexity of life in the diaspora, about the complexity of sexuality and identity — are things that speak to us viscerally in the present. His fiction grasps how these forces, as possibility and problem, are reshaping the world in ways that other writers from that time don’t quite address.
WJM: Yes, McKay is always interested in how human beings live in and through supply chains, so to speak, and he’s tracking how we can interfere with the inhumanity of these chains and somehow find pleasure and happiness there. A number of people have also long said, in so many words, that McKay offers an intersectional understanding of Black identity. It’s impossible for McKay — and, for him, far less exciting — to think about Blackness without thinking about ethnic, class, national and sexual differences. When it comes to gender specifically, there is misogyny in McKay that we can’t and shouldn’t deny. Yet I think particularly in Romance in Marseille, there are both baldly misogynous incidents and impulses and a final argument that a Black international that doesn’t include Black women can’t be complete or even possible. That’s what I take from Lafala’s lonely triumph, followed by his lover Aslima’s murder at the end of the novel.
I’ve also been thinking about McKay quite a bit in regard to the recent protests against anti-Black police violence that have swept the United States and the globe recently. As someone who was writing radical poetry about Black resistance and solidarity nearly a century ago — “If We Must Die” comes to mind immediately in this context — how do you think McKay would engage with the mass mobilization and broad, coalitional resistance in support of Black lives that we’re seeing now?
GEH: McKay was almost continually active in Black nationalist and leftist movements. He was likely a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the first racially integrated labor union during the General Strike period leading up to the Red Summer of 1919. His famous Red Summer sonnet, “If We Must Die,” suggests the solidarity between Black resistance and leftist protest. In the early 1920s, if not a member he was instrumental in founding the underground African Blood Brotherhood. While serving as co-editor with Mike Gold of The Liberator, he encouraged ABB meetings in the Liberator office. Soon after, he “interviewed” Trotsky in Moscow, and the two intellectuals discussed how Black colonized peoples across Africa and the diaspora could be organized to rise up against European imperialism and American racism.
While living in France, where he wrote Home to Harlem and most of Banjo, McKay was the object of police investigations. The French accused him of stirring up Black leftist dissidence, discussed in A Long Way from Home (1937). His decision to leave France for Spain and ultimately Morocco was at least partly due to harassment from French penal authorities. In Morocco, he was hounded by the French colonial police and British consular agents, who believed, not altogether without justification, that he was involved in the emerging Pan-Arab movement, which was focused on forcing French and other European imperialism out of North Africa. McKay says in his biography — the same theme appears in Romance in Marseille — that white anthropologists created “white” North Africa, that in fact Moroccans are historically Black.
As Bill has written about extensively, McKay was a prime suspect and a subject of Bureau of Investigation surveillance, leading to a fat FBI file. In the 1920s, the Bureau believed that McKay was at the avant-garde of a movement to overthrow America, and assigned agents to be on the lookout to seize him if he crossed a US frontier. The dossier even contains analyses of his poems, a particularly interesting agent’s take on the iconic 1921 sonnet “America,” where he portrays a feminized America as a kind of bad stepmom who abuses her unwanted children, and then a kind of vampire that sucks the life out of the oppressed. The Bureau was particularly interested in his sexuality, associating deviance with radical politics.
Traces of his interest in Arab and North African resistance exist in Romance in Marseille. More overtly, with its dialogues about the role of Black labor in communism and related issues, the novel demonstrates McKay's complex attitude toward Black political action. He says in A Long Way from Home that his personality was that of the poet, not an organizer, like the character Etienne St. Dominique. However, as his radical poetry demonstrates, he was committed to Black revolutionary change. The 1941 novel Amiable with Big Teeth, with its rejection of international communism, indicates his investment in Black nationalism or transnationalism. According to Cooper’s biography, even McKay’s “turn toward the right” period was characterized by his attempt to organize Black Catholic workers, praxis that the Chicago Archdiocese wanted to discourage.
Nobody writes about social connection the way that McKay does. He really captures what it’s like to be at a party, to be at a club in the crush of bodies and passions, in the heat of random encounters. It feels so powerful to read his writing about the pleasures of bodily contact at a time when such contact is such a strange, seemingly distant thing for us. How are you thinking of McKay at this moment of isolation and pandemic?
WJM: Well, we can say that if people are reading McKay as an instruction manual for hygienic living, they’re deeply misguided. That’s beautifully put though. It expresses how important was his connection to the body and its erotics, in part because McKay’s other problems of belonging were so acute if self-produced — the political, national, and cultural belonging that never quite settled for him. The provisional unity of the Black diaspora is imagined in his fiction through characters who hug and stroke each other, penetrating each other in all sorts of ways in public and otherwise — that’s one mode in which he can imagine and celebrate forms of togetherness.
GEH: That might be part of why Romance in Marseille is taking off during quarantine. At least in the imagination, as you say, McKay is the great expresser of the value of the body and coming together and partying and free sex and so forth, those kind of Edward Carpenter ideals.
WJM: It’s interesting because Harlem Renaissance literature at large features quite a few parties, but in McKay they’re not figured as decadence, or occasions for witty social anatomy, or as a society amusing itself to death. (You can say that the 1920s invented parties even beyond cocktails as we know them, but that’s another story.) I’m thinking of Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring from 1932, where the party is a fascinating orgy, but a decadent one that leads to a highly symbolic suicide. (The vogueish New Negro, in sum, kills off the artistic New Negro.) In McKay’s writing, there is little sense of guilt or loss in those moments of music, dance, common bodily pleasure, and erotic connection. They’re the best scenes, those party scenes, in the whole of Romance. There’s an instructive musicological edge to these as well as McKay imagines a synthesis of Andalusian gypsy music, Martinican beguine, and African American jazz, thinking about bodily togetherness in the form of hybrid Black dance styles, musical styles, and their associated rhythms.
What can we take from McKay’s writing, from its emphasis on pleasure in the midst of disaster, as a resource for navigating the present?
WJM: Man, that is a good question, a big question. I thought about this a bunch, though in different terms and at a different time, when I was editing his Complete Poems. I thought about him writing lyric at a time of catastrophe, trying to think about the lyric “I,” that contemplative yet narrow position of sensory and intellectual overload, as being buffeted by forces of historical chaos and promise in the violent “short 20th century.” That may be the truest subject of McKay’s poems.
McKay wrote a bunch of lyrics about venereal disease in particular in a sequence from the early 1920s called “The Clinic.” These are quarantine poems, poems informed by his experience while bedridden in a French hospital, about common confinement and finding community in confinement. He thinks about the dying, the infectious, and survivors lying together — and about the legacy of Michelangelo and other figures from the Renaissance, perhaps not the plague years, but the enlightenment that comes closely after.
GEH: It’s interesting to me that, to my knowledge, the 1918 “Spanish flu” doesn’t appear anywhere in McKay’s writing. He writes about the experience of the Great War, but not the pandemic, which killed twice as many people. Especially in Romance in Marseille, McKay is working through the horrible illness he was experiencing while writing the book — it comes through in the book itself. This might have been one of the reasons he shelved it in 1930, because he had to go to Berlin for a painful spinal tap treatment and then a long recovery. Undergoing a debilitating operation must on some level resonate with Lafala’s loss of his limbs and the catastrophe of the body being assaulted through amputation. And McKay is struggling with working through coming out on the other side of that with a body that’s not completely whole, of figuring out how one lives through that. On some level, I think Romance is talking about this, too.
WJM: And that loss is figured as a kind of castration, which can be overcome, perhaps, in the newly diffuse sexuality that follows. Perhaps that resonates with us now because we’ve all experienced a loss (of some kind) in our capacity to envision sexual fulfillment, even in the realm of imagination, amid the coronavirus pandemic and its conditions. One of the great early modernist perceptions, of course, from McKay’s fellow poets Whitman and Baudelaire, is that cities are sexy because you can walk along and catch someone’s eye in the crowd and have a fleeting connection. That now-traditional urban experience is not available right now. I think that McKay is meditating on such possibilities and what follows.
GEH: I can’t get into my mind that there is an end to this thing now, the pandemic. And I think McKay captures this in a sense in his later writings because of the problems with the treatment of his syphilis and what it did to his body. We believe that someday we’ll be able to walk the streets of New York or Paris and live that life of the erotics of the city that Bill’s talking about, resume the role of the flânerie, but we don’t know when or what new version will take its place. It reminds me of the AIDS epidemic in that regard. We can’t just assume that there’s a normal to go back to in terms of love and the body and sexuality. I’m really depressing myself here, but I think this is relevant to what McKay’s talking about in his later writing.
I too wonder if this is just going to be our new normal. But I’m also holding on to the fact that human beings just want to be together, and that human beings change and develop new modes of togetherness, and rediscover old ones in a new context. I think there’s a future in that. We’re at an inflection point, but that means we can go in at least two different directions.
WJM: I think that McKay would vote for the impossibility of installing forms of pure social hygiene. In Romance, the cleanest thing you can be is a pig. The only way to live in a form of ethical health, says the novel, is to share your mud with another. When Lafala rejects Aslima, he’s rejecting the mud too, which is the healing elixir in the book, and the loss of it is his tragedy.
GEH: Romance is a novel fascinated with forms of connection and sex as a form of self-healing and intimacy, but it’s also a text fundamentally about radical autonomy. So maybe, yes, there’s a future in that for McKay, and for us.
Eric Newman is LARB’s gender and sexuality editor.
Eric Newman is a writer, critic, and researcher whose work explores questions of race, belonging, identity, and utopian imagination in 20th century queer American culture. A former reporter for Condé Nast and Nielsen Business Media, he is currently the Gender & Sexuality editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, co-host and executive producer of the LARB Radio Hour on KPFK LA 90.7 FM, and a lecturer in English at UCLA. He lives in Santa Monica.
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