In Contagious Mood: Notes on Claude McKay’s New, Last Novel “Amiable with Big Teeth”

David B. Hobbs looks at Harlem Renaissance fixture Claude McKay's recently discovered "Amiable with Big Teeth."

By David B. HobbsApril 22, 2017

In Contagious Mood: Notes on Claude McKay’s New, Last Novel “Amiable with Big Teeth”

Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay. Penguin Classics. 352 pages.

RED MOODS, black moods, golden moods. Curious, syncopated slipping-over into one mood, back-sliding back to the first mood. Humming in harmony, barbaric harmony, joy-drunk, chasing out the shadow of the moment before.

The most astonishing passage in Claude McKay’s first novel, Home to Harlem, is not about any one character but the spectrum of moods that he saw swirling in the city. It seems he wasn’t finished with them, and as early as 1937, McKay applied to the Guggenheim foundation for support in writing a Harlem novel “dealing with its numerous movements and different moods.” In the newly available Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem (1941), we can finally see the exciting result of that expansive interest.

Amiable is about a young Ethiopian envoy on a fundraising mission during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, as well as the Harlemites helping him, spanning many segments and orientations of the black bourgeoisie. For the most part, it is a social novel punctuated with satirical brio — McKay’s teeth are used on shortsighted leaders or characters who lack a strong sense of racial fellow-feeling as often as they are on the manipulative Communists — and it predominantly takes place in offices, parlors, and bedrooms. But the opening chapter offers an arresting portrait of the lower social strata as their attentions (and eventually, wallets) are directed by the novel’s occasion. “From 110th to 140th Street, Seventh Avenue on this pleasant Sunday afternoon was a grandly tumultuous parade ground. The animated crowds pushed over the jammed sidewalks into the street.” McKay ensures this tumultuous mood is unmistakable by repeating the word many times in the opening pages, bringing us into the overwhelming uncertainty that marks both the event and this period in Harlem’s history. The crowds are craning to see who they think is the envoy, Lij Alamaya, but he passes through them unnoticed wearing a business suit. Instead, it’s “one of the most curious of the local illuminati” that provides the thrill. An independent intellectual named Professor Koazhy, leader of a reading (and brawling) group called the Senegambians, appears standing in an open-topped car, dressed as a traditional Ethiopian warrior, “a mailed shirt extravagantly covered with golden gleaming arabesques and a wonderfully high shako, white and surmounted by a variegated cluster of ostrich plumes.” Although the Hands to Ethiopia committee — led by Chairman Pablo Peixota, a reformed racketeer — have meticulously planned the envoy’s public reception at a local church, their ceremony is dry and lifeless. By popular demand, Koazhy takes the stage and delivers an impassioned history lesson, thereby doubling the total donations received that afternoon.

Koazhy’s tactics produce a crisis of decorum that acts as template for the story that follows. He isn’t a protagonist so much as a pivotal supporting role, and his dedicated Afrocentrism stands in dramatic contrast to the other characters in the novel, who argue over whether aligning with Koazhy “will frighten away the better elements.” Much of the action in Amiable happens in debate over allowing white members into the Hands to Ethiopia organization about the political orientation of the group, about identification and misidentification between Aframericans and Africans, about interractial marriage, and more. McKay remains uninterested in what we might call psychological interiority, but he’s fascinated by attempts to resolve principles with political exigencies and by what happens when the need to do something stymies the need to do the right thing. James Weldon Johnson, a friend of McKay’s, referred to “the Negro church” and “the folklore of the Negro people” as the two main sources of “a culture of the Negro which is his and has been addressed to him; a culture which has, for good or ill, helped to clarify his consciousness and create emotional attitudes which are conducive to action.” Almost perversely, McKay begins Amiable by staging a conflict between them.


In 2009, Dr. Jean-Christophe Cloutier (UPenn) was a graduate student at Columbia, processing the papers of poet, obscenitist, and literary agent Samuel Roth for the university’s Rare Books and Manuscripts division, when in Roth’s collection, Cloutier came upon what appeared to be a completed novel by Claude McKay. He’d never heard of it before, but the director of his dissertation, Dr. Brent Hayes Edwards, had published a chapter about McKay, and so Cloutier brought it to him. [1] From the first few pages, they had a feeling that it was McKay’s writing — subtle tendencies, like stacked, alliterative adjectives or seeming-gerunds functioning as verbs, as well as walk-on appearances by persons McKay had included in his nonfiction study, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940) — but they needed stronger proof. Roth’s reputation is such that they wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he’d faked the entire thing.

It took several years of combing other archives to verify that Amiable belonged to McKay. Eventually, they discovered a letter from McKay’s friend and former editor, Max Eastman, who praised the novel by quoting lines from it back to him. From the date stamps, Cloutier and Edwards knew that Amiable was written in 1940 and ’41 — after McKay returned to New York from exile in Europe and North Africa in 1934, after the disappointing receptions of his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), and Harlem: Negro Metropolis — but before the stroke that he suffered in 1943 and his conversion to Catholicism the following year. They realized Amiable is McKay’s only novel written on American soil, and fittingly for the vagabond author it concerns black Americans understanding their identity in an increasingly multifaceted geopolitical culture. According to Cloutier, McKay “emerged from his travels with an agonizing need to help foster greater group unity for peoples of African descent. Because he saw this solidarity working for other groups in his travels and years abroad. It also deepened his historical sense, which is on display throughout Amiable.

The glowing New York Times article about their find, in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to Amiable as “a major discovery,” came soon after. But it took another four years to navigate the copyright vagaries of McKay’s complex literary estate. Edwards has said that while they had a version of the novel ready to go in 2012, they continued to work on its introduction and editorial notes as the novel moved slowly toward its legal release. [2] The result is the rare case of an approachable yet authoritative first edition, a novel of tremendous historical importance that is fully prepared for the casual reader. It is hard not to imagine a sense of relief for Cloutier, Edwards, and McKay.


Just down the street from where its typescript was discovered, at an event celebrating Amiable’s release, Cloutier read from the novel’s thrilling opening pages. [3] Edwards read from a less likely section, but one that functions as its own telling introduction. About halfway through the novel, Pablo Peixota and another member of the Hands to Ethiopia visit a bar being picketed by Sufi Abdul Hamid, a real, prominent labor organizer and one of Harlem’s first Islamic preachers. “Peixota’s first reaction to the place was not unfavorable. It had appeared to him like a big carousing depot for disoriented young people, of which it was regrettable there were so many in Harlem. And he was inclined to conjecture that the Sufi perhaps had a special grudge against the owners[.]” These combinations of history and fiction, and of common mores and bourgeois reactions to them, are present in most of McKay’s work but are rarely so central, which makes for the fascinating coincidence of his only truly American novel and an apparent “late style.”

Despite growing up in Jamaica, New York was McKay’s home, and his relationship with the city became more complex during his decade abroad. Writing about one of many returns, he recalled watching the city’s skyline coming into view: “again the pyramids of New York in their Egyptian majesty dazzled my sight like a miracle of might and took my breath like the banging music of Wagner assaulting one’s spirit and rushing it skyward with the pride and power of an eagle […] Oh, I wished it were possible to know New York in that way only[.]” The spiritual power that McKay finds in the city’s verticality is at odds with the intertwined networks of affiliation that McKay was then navigating. In Amiable, he resolves this problem dialectically, using a rich sense of local history to unsettle habit and produce these moments of skyward rush, as if placing beacons on the minor celebrities and oft-ignored buildings and then allowing us to watch from above as they circulate around the neighborhood.

Cloutier has referred to this as McKay’s “archival sensibility” [4] — that Amiable is in dialogue with an expansive body of research that McKay considers to be malleable, such that when he departs from historical fact it is with expectation that the reader will notice the departure and it will produce a kind of dissonance. McKay draws on the case of “Princess Tamanya,” a local woman named Islin Harvey who gave interviews as an Ethiopian princess, for a “Princess Benebe” that appears in the novel, but he renders her story ordinary instead of exceptional. When Princess Benebe’s hoax is revealed, Pablo Peixota’s daughter reflects: “Harlem was infested with many such as she[.]” A more consequential shift comes in the dissolution of Harlem’s empathy with the Ethiopians — in Harlem: Negro Metropolis, McKay recalls the “a bitter reaction” at finding out the Soviets were arming the Italians, but in Amiable, it is the discovery “that the Emperor of Ethiopia had declared that Ethiopia was not a ‘Negro’ state[.]” Of course, the characters are not convinced that the story is credible, and there is plenty of “fake news” in Amiable that speak to the current moment, but McKay is thinking past falsehoods to the ways identification and appropriation abet the transmission of misinformation, in Harlem and perhaps beyond.


And so, he stands to date, the enfant terrible of the Negro Renaissance, where with a little loyalty and consistency he might have been at least its Villon and perhaps its Voltaire. — Alain Locke [5]

McKay beckons counterfactuals. William J. Maxwell, the editor of his Complete Poems, wonders whether the Harlem Renaissance might have remained more politically radical if he hadn’t been exiled. [6] McKay’s biographer, Wayne F. Cooper, conjectures that spending “a lifetime, instead of just two or three months, in the high-pressure incubator of southern race relations” might have changed his views on segregation. [7] And Amiable provides us with another tantalizing possibility. Would the publication of Amiable have changed the debates about black cultural leadership that followed? Would McKay have presented such an alluring figure to Harold Cruse, who writes about him at length in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), if it had been released? Would Manning Marable have still felt that the situation was Kafkaesque, as he does in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983)? [8]

Or, one possibility for the present: is Claude McKay a major American writer? That he was is beyond question. He wrote the Harlem Renaissance’s first book of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922), and the first best-selling American novel by a black author, Home to Harlem (1928). [9] He was a friend of Johnson, Eastman, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Paul Bowles, Jacob Lawrence, and many others; a public sparring partner of W. E. B. DuBois and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; and an unofficial representative of the “American Negro” at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1922. McKay left many marks, literary and political, on American culture. But as a writer to study and discuss today, the McKay industry lags behind his peers from the early days of the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike Hughes, Jean Toomer, or Zora Neale Hurston, there is no “Selected Letters” to support researchers, which directly contributed to Cloutier and Edwards’s difficulty. This past summer, when I taught Home to Harlem, my university’s bookstore could not get enough copies to cover my class of 13 and Amazon was sold out. Readers seem unlikely to pick up McKay outside of the classroom, and his work is not often covered in it.

So, while Penguin has advertised Amiable as “one of the most significant literary events in recent years,” McKay’s unsettled position in the realm of American letters suggests that there is the potential for something more complex to take place. We have another chance to evaluate McKay; Edwards, for his part, believes this has as much to do with how the literatures of the African diaspora are taught in general, and he’s trying to change this. [10] As editor of the “Harlem Renaissance 1919–1940” section of the new Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Edwards brought a global focus to it and expanded the selection of works by McKay, including excerpts from his second novel, Banjo (1929). [11] Future anthologies may very well include part of Amiable in the 1940–’60 section.


Building in Harlem (1945), depicting a six-story brownstone whose cornices have been smoothed into abstraction, is the only canvas without a face in Alice Neel, Uptown[12] It is neither wholly critical nor joyful — its bright blue sky offsetting the looming shadows and the looming shadows offsetting the bright blue sky — making it an idiosyncratic painting within both the show and the gamut of aestheticized Harlems. The teens milling around the subway entrance give it a sense of community, but the perspective on that station entrance is disorientingly flat, making it seem drawn onto the side of the building instead of beside it. Hilton Als, who curated the show, sees a portrait: “maybe [Neel] saw a face; the building tilts a little, like a human head in repose. It sags a little, too, maybe reflecting the spiritual weight of its inhabitants — colored people, mostly, or most likely, given that it was Harlem during the war, or right after.”

Histories of black American art tend to jump from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement in the mid-1960s, but the 1930s and ’40s demand closer consideration. Amiable will foster this conversation, and although McKay was captivated by historical events and figures, the novel’s real achievement is in the production of a distinctive atmosphere, one of experimentation despite the Depression and global conflict. This story, too, is not wholly critical or joyful — not even necessarily satisfying, as the later chapters take extended detours away from the principal conflict with the manipulative Communists — but it is rich in detail, sensation, and sensibility.

From pool-room and saloon the rich and rude
Vernacular of Harlem takes the air,
Young folks stroll by in contagious mood
Insouciant as if never knowing care
Meanwhile a white-and-black parade deploys
Its banners shouting for Scottsboro boys [13]


David B. Hobbs is a PhD Candidate at New York University, writing a dissertation about lyric modernism and the city. His archival discovery, 21 Poems by George Oppen, will be published in August.


[1] Edwards’s The Practice of Diaspora contains a long chapter on McKay’s second novel, Banjo (1929)

[2] Meeting with Edwards, March 2, 2017


[4] Pg. 558, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, “Amiable with Big Teeth: The Case of Claude McKay’s Last Novel” Modernism/modernity 20.3 (September 2013): 557-576.

[5] Locke’s quote comes from a 1937 review of McKay’s autobiography A Long Way from Home (qtd in Wayne F. Cooper’s Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance pg. 320)

[6] Maxwell — Pg. xvii “Introduction” Complete Poems

[7] Cooper — Pg. 343 Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance

[8] Marable begins his chapter on Black Political Leadership by quoting from Kafka’s “Couriers”

[9] from Maxwell’s “Introduction” (Complete Poems xix).

[10] Meeting with Edwards, March 2, 2017


[12] the David Zwirner Gallery’s current exhibition of Neel’s paintings, up until April 22, 2017.

[13] From “Lenox Avenue” (c. 1938) by Claude McKay (Complete Poems 237)

LARB Contributor

David B. Hobbs is a PhD Candidate at New York University, writing a dissertation about lyric modernism and the city. His archival discovery, 21 Poems by George Oppen, will be published in August.


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