Dispatches from the Intermodernist Archive | Claude McKay’s Workers’ Dreadnought Poetry (1919-1920)
The years 1919–1921 were important ones in Claude McKay’s career—serving as a bridge between his early years in the United States, where he largely made his living as a laborer and at times, as a Pullman Porter, and his later career as a professional writer. He wrote most of the poems that would be published in his breakthrough 1922 collection of poems, Harlem Shadows, in this period, and published some of them, first in venues such as The Liberator and then, while living in England, in Cambridge Magazine. The group of poems published in Cambridge Magazine, under C. K. Ogden’s editorship, would also be published as an independent book in England in 1920, Spring in New Hampshire.
Also while living in England, McKay published a number of poems in the London Communist Magazine, Workers’ Dreadnought. These appeared between September 1919 and October 2020, and most of the poems published here were not reprinted in Harlem Shadows or other collections authorized by McKay during his lifetime (the poems can, however, be found in William Maxwell’s Complete Poems of Claude McKay). With Workers' Dreadnought, McKay published the poems either under his name or under the pseudonym “Hugh Hope”; both Maxwell and biographer Wayne Cooper confirm that Hugh Hope was indeed McKay.
Collecting McKay’s Workers’ Dreadnought poems as a group is valuable as a way of gaining access to a version of McKay that is different from both the voice found in his early Jamaican patois poems, as well as from the “American” voice for which he is best known—as one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
McKay’s reasons for excluding many of these poems from Harlem Shadows are not fully known; he did not address these writings at great length in his memoir, A Long Way From Home, and most of his personal correspondence from this period has not survived. However, it is not hard for a contemporary critic to speculate that McKay and his editors may have seen the tone and theme of these poems as too disparate from his other poems and opted to exclude them in the interest of greater thematic coherence. Another possible reason for the exclusion might be pragmatic: in the wake of the mass deportation of Communists from the United States in the fall of 1919 and the arrest and imprisonment of British Communists, including many of McKay’s close friends and associates in the fall of 1920, it is quite likely that McKay decided not to later claim ownership of these poems as a matter of not exposing himself to legal trouble—including possible deportation.
Whatever McKay’s reason for excluding his most explicitly Communist-themed poetry from Harlem Shadows, the poems should be interesting to readers today. For one thing, several (though admittedly not all) of the political poems are written in a style that suggests strong intellectual overlap with McKay’s other works. We say this despite the consensus of earlier critics and biographers like Cooper, who dismissed the political poems as “proletariat doggerel” that was “clearly inferior to . . . [McKay’s] best efforts” (117). In fact, the best of these poems are much more than doggerel.
One particular poem I would flag for readers from the present collection is “Joy in the Woods.” I find “Joy in the Woods” particularly helpful in bridging the apparent gap between McKay’s political poems and the poems he included in Spring in New Hampshire, especially the title poem, which shares with “Joy in the Woods” a distinct sense of longing for a natural beauty that is denied to the speaker. While the reason for that denial is never specified in the poem “Spring in New Hampshire,” in “Joy in the Woods” the speaker identifies himself repeatedly as a “hired” man, who must work for wages in town rather than enjoy the freedom and sensory pleasures of spring in the countryside. The sense of yearning expressed in the final couplet (“For a man-machine toil-tired / May crave beauty too—though he’s hired.”) speaks powerfully to a contradiction that addresses the competing thematic interests McKay was struggling with throughout this period. Despite his commitment to the workers and to revolution, McKay also “craved beauty”—and yet he could not find a way to reconcile these competing interests in the volumes of poetry he published in 1920 (Spring in New Hampshire) or 1922 (Harlem Shadows). As a result, fine poems like “Joy in the Woods” were effectively inaccessible to readers for generations.
The venue where these poems were published, Workers’ Dreadnought, has a fascinating and tumultuous history in its own right; readers interested in reading more of the paper might want to visit the partial digital archive digitized by LSE here. In brief, Workers’ Dreadnought was a weekly newspaper edited by Sylvia Pankhurst, who entered into British politics as a Suffragist but by the time McKay came to England had also become committed to International Socialism. The newspaper was originally called The Woman’s Dreadnought, but changed its name and slogan in 1917 to Workers’ Dreadnought (with a slogan of “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”). After partial women’s suffrage was passed in British Parliament in February 1918, Pankhurst wrote of her disappointment that full adult suffrage had not been granted (Pankhurst, “Look to the Future”, Workers’ Dreadnought, 16 February 1918). In July 1918, the slogan of the newspaper was changed to simply “For International Socialism.”
As Cooper recounts, McKay first appeared on the radar of Pankhurst and other staff writers for the Workers’ Dreadnought in the summer of 1919, when a group of his poems appeared in The Liberator in New York (112). Workers’ Dreadnought then republished those poems in September 1919.
Starting in January 1920, McKay began publishing new poems in Workers’ Dreadnought; he also began publishing feature stories for the newspaper on issues related to race and International Socialism, as well as London dockworker labor issues. In October 1920, the Workers’ Dreadnought offices on Fleet Street were raided by police for articles thought to be encouraging sedition under the Defence of the Realm Act (Cooper 127), and Pankhurst and others associated with the newspaper were arrested and tried. In November, Pankhurst was convicted of all the charges against her and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment (Cooper 125). The growing sense of police persecution and spying made the environment difficult for McKay to bear, and sometime in the winter of 1920, he returned to the U.S. He did not write for Workers’ Dreadnought again; in 1924, the newspaper closed.
The poems included here were taken from microfilm versions of Workers’ Dreadnought found in Temple University’s library. Where possible, I have included page image scans of the poems alongside text versions. Readers may also wish to consult the Workers’ Dreadnought Digital Archive (partial).
Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Louisiana State UP, 1996.
Maxwell, William J., editor. Complete Poems of Claude McKay. U of Illinois P, 2008.
Claude McKay’s Early Poetry (1911–1922): A Digital Collection. Edited by Amardeep Singh.
Pankhurst, Sylvia. “Look to the Future.” Workers’ Dreadnought, 16 February 1918.