Claude McKay (1889 - 1948) - The National Library of Jamaica

Claude McKay (1889 - 1948)

Claude McKay, renowned author of several novels and anthologies was born in Jamaica on September 15, 1889.  1907 could be considered a significant year in the life of this great contributor to Caribbean literature.  In that year he took his first job as an apprentice wheelwright, but more importantly, he met his first significant patron, Walter Jekyl.

At age 22 McKay joined the Constabulary Force in Spanish Town and a year later he published the “Jamaica Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica”.  Later that year McKay migrated to the United States where he attended Kansas State University.  He then moved to New York where he married Eulalie Imelda Edwards.  The marriage lasted only six months.

Three years after his marriage ended he met his second significant patron, Frank Harris, editor of “Pearson’s” magazine.  He then began publishing poems under the pseudonym “Eli Edwards” and in 1919 he published one of his strongest poems “If we must die” in Max Eastman’s “The Liberator”.

On a sojourn to London in the same year, the writer was introduced to the works of Karl Marx, thus his entry into Marxism.  During his year’s stay in London he worked for Sylvia Pankhurst’s Marxist periodical “Workers Dreadnought” and published “Spring in New Hampshire ”.  In 1921 he returned to New York for a year during which time he became Associate Editor of “The Liberator”, and published two essays “How Black Sees Green and Red” and “He Who Gets Slapped”.  In that period he also published the book “Harlem Shadows”.  McKay resigned in June 1922 and made a pilgrimage to Russia to the enthusiastic welcome of Soviet bureaucracy and ordinary Russian people.

For a decade (1923-33) he was an expatriate to Europe and North Africa and in 1934 returned to the United States to spend several months in welfare camps.  At age 49 he met Ellen Tarry, a Roman Catholic writer whose work inspired him to become Catholic shortly after he suffered a stroke.

In 1948 after living a full and very active life Claude McKay died peacefully at age 59 in Chicago and was laid to rest in New York.  Claude McKay has left an indelible mark on the literature of the region and his works are well-known and well-loved.  These are some of his more famous poems:

  • Flame Heart
  • North and South
  • If We Must Die
  • Spanish Needle