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America Claude Mckay

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English Literature

In 'America' (1921) Claude McKay expresses the dichotomous experience of living in America as a black immigrant. 'America' is personified throughout the poem as a brutal yet wondrous place, contributing to the narrator's conflicting perception of the country.

Content warning: the following text contextualises the lived experiences of African American and immigrant communities in the United States of America, from the 17th century to the modern day. Discriminatory laws and social attitudes to people of colour are discussed.

Summary of ‘America' (1921) by Claude McKay

Written In

1921

Written By

Claude McKay

Form

Sonnet

Meter

Iambic pentameter

Rhyme Scheme

ABABCDCDEFEFGG

Poetic Devices

Personification

Metaphor

Oxymoron

Enjambment

Frequently noted imagery

Cruelty

Grandeur

Tone

Pensive

Key themes

Conflict

Meaning

America is a unique and flourishing nation, yet it is also ridden with social issues such as racism.

Context of ‘America'

Let's put the poem in context in order to understand it better.

Biographical context

Claude McKay was a Jamaican poet who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica in 1889, McKay was raised by parents of Ashanti and Malagasy descent.

Harlem Renaissance: A literary and arts movement which emerged in the late 1910s and continued up until the late 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance was a celebration of African American culture and heritage, seeking to reconceptualise the identity of African Americans.

McKay published his first book of poetry in 1912, titled Songs of Jamaica, written in the Jamaican dialect. That year he attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, USA, and later Kansas State University, where he studied for two years. After completing his studies, McKay continued to write and publish poetry that expressed various social and political experiences from his perspective as a black man.

American Claude McKay, Claude McKay, Studysmarter

One of the main names in the Harlem Renaissance, Wikimedia commons

'America' Poem Analysis

Now that we've covered Claude McKay's background, it's time to analyse his 1921 poem 'America'. We will consider both structural and linguistic features of the poem, from McKay's choice of meter to the poem's major themes.

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate,

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

The title

The poem's title 'America' directly refers to the nation of America, highlighting how this nation is the poem's focus. The noun 'America' is not complemented by an adjective, causing the poem's title to come across as neutral. This allows the reader to be informed of the narrator's conflicted perception of America through the contents of the poem itself.

Form and Structure

The poem 'America' is written in a sonnet form. This form and structure give the poem a regular structure, creating a considerate and thoughtful tone.

'America' is a Shakespearean Sonnet. A sonnet form consisting of fourteen lines, usually in a single stanza, written in iambic pentameter. The fourteen lines of a Shakespearean Sonnet are typically divided into three quatrains (four lines) and a couplet, following an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme.

In the eighth line of the poem there is a turning point, also known as a Volta, causing the poem to change direction. In the first eight lines of the poem, the narrator focuses on America, which is personified as 'she'. In the final six lines of the poem the narrator focuses on their presence in America; 'I stand within her walls'. This partially divides the poem into an octave and a sestet, although not in the traditional way we see in Petrarchan Sonnets.

The sonnet form is associated with love and romance. Why do you think McKay has chosen this form for his poem? Does the poem's content contradict or conform to this form?

Shakespearean Sonnet: A short poem consisting of fourteen lines, typically written in iambic pentameter with an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme.

Petrarchan Sonnet: A type of sonnet consisting of fourteen lines divided into an octave (eight lines) with an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme and a sestet (six lines) with either a CDCDCD or CDECDE rhyme scheme.

Iambic Pentameter: A line of verse consisting of five iambs (one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable).

Poetic devices

McKay employs various structural features, such as enjambment, to influence the rhythm and tone in which the poem is read.

Enjambment

Enjambment is used only twice within the poem, causing it to have a notable effect on the poem's rhythm. As the poem is written in iambic pentameter, McKay's use of enjambment creates an unnatural pause in the poem's rhythm, for instance:

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Here, the enjambment causes the narrator to pause as they describe how they exist within America without 'terror' or 'malice'. The pause emphasises that the narrator does not resent or fear America despite its cruelty. A tone of consideration is created from this pause, as though the narrator is trying to be honest and open, and is therefore taking their time with what they say.

Enjambment: When a sentence is continued from one line of verse onto another.

Alliteration

McKay utilises alliteration to add a harsh note to the poem's pensive tone, suggesting a level of resentment expressed by the narrator. For instance, in the first stanza McKay writes:

she feeds me bread of bitterness,

Here, the plosive 'b' sound creates a harsh and blunt sound, contributing to the resentment suggested by 'bitterness'.

Plosive: A consonant sound created by suddenly releasing air after stopping the airflow, these sounds include; 't', 'k', 'p', 'g', 'd', and 'b'.

'America' literary devices

Not only do the structural features of the poem contribute to how we, the reader, interpret the poem, McKay uses literary devices such as oxymoron to portray America and his perception of the nation.

Personification

Throughout the poem, America is personified. By giving the nation human attributes, McKay highlights how the majority of the issues he associates with the nation are related to the people who govern and live within it, rather than the nation as a mass of land. For instance, in the second and third stanzas McKay writes;

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

Referring to America as 'her', therefore personifying the nation.

Oxymoron

McKay utilises an oxymoron in the poem to demonstrate the narrator's conflicting stance on America. The most prominent use of an oxymoron is in the poem's fourth stanza where McKay refers to America as a:

cultured hell

The contrast between the positive connotations of 'cultured' and negative connotations of 'hell' indicates that even though McKay views America as an overall negative place, he acknowledges it has some benefits. This idea is carried through to McKay's use of another oxymoron in the poem's final line:

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

The imagery and tone of ‘America'

The poetic and literary devices we have reviewed contribute to the overall imagery and tone of 'America'.

Imagery

There are two dominant semantic fields within the poem which conflict with each other, cruelty and grandeur. These two juxtaposing semantic fields emphasise the vast nature of America, it is not just one thing, it is both cruel and grand.

Cruelty

McKay utilises a semantic field of cruelty throughout 'America' to present the country in a dark and dangerous way. This is evident through McKay's linguistic choices; 'bitterness', 'hell', 'terror', 'malice', and 'sinking'. Such language evokes negative imagery of a harsh and unfair landscape, indicating to the reader that America is not necessarily a kind or welcoming place. This is particularly evident in the second line, where America is metaphorically portrayed as a tiger;

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Grandeur

The poem's semantic field of cruelty is juxtaposed by a semantic field of grandeur, suggesting that the narrator has conflicting views of America. Once again, McKay uses language to evoke a certain image in the reader's mind, this time a positive one; 'vigor', 'strength', 'bigness', 'granite wonders', 'priceless treasures'. Here, America comes across as a land that is larger than life, which the narrator admires.

Tone

The poem has a pensive tone, as the narrator considers the nation of America for both its positive and negative aspects and tries to work out what sort of future the nation may hold.

This tone is mainly created through the poem's structure. It is written in iambic pentameter with a regular rhyme scheme, creating a controlled rhythm. This controlled rhythm suggests that the narrator has carefully considered what they are saying, rather than speaking without thought.

The tone is also developed through the poem's juxtaposing semantic fields of cruelty and grandeur. These two opposing images contribute to the idea that the narrator is considering what their opinion is on America, weighing up the good and bad.

‘America' themes

As hinted at by the poem's title, 'America' presents the nation of America, and McKay's perception of it, to the reader. The most significant theme within the poem is conflict, however this theme relies on the underlying theme of history.

Conflict

The central theme of 'America' is conflict, both in regard to the conflicted nature of America as a nation and the narrator's conflicting perceptions of the nation. This theme is encapsulated by lines three and four of the poem;

Stealing my breath of life, I will confessI love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Although McKay acknowledges America is 'hell', he also states that he loves the nation, this suggests that despite being of America's flaws, McKay can not help how he feels, leaving him conflicted. This conflict is emphasised by the enjambment between the lines, creating a slight break in the rhythm as McKay confesses how he feels about America. This break could demonstrate how McKay is conflicted about his feelings as he struggles to say them outright.

History

History is an underlying theme throughout the poem. In 'America' McKay documents the political and social tensions of a moment in time in America, making the poem itself a piece of history. This theme is most evident in the final two lines of the poem;

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

This couplet is arguably an allusion to Percy Shelley's sonnet 'Ozymandias' (1818) which presents the decline of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, known as Ozymandias by the Greeks. Shelley's poem concludes with the lines;

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Allusion: A reference in a literary text to a location, event, or other literary work.

Through alluding to Shelley's poem, which references the historic fall and decay of a ruler, McKay is suggesting that America 'beneath the touch of time's' hand may meet the same fate. The personification of time emphasises the historical nature of this suggestion, and suggests that America can not control the hand of time, it is inevitable and 'unerring'.

The imagery of 'priceless treasures sinking' also indicates that if America remains marked by the social and political issues of racism and xenophobia, which influenced McKay's writing, it will meet the fate of many other unequal societies present throughout history.

America - Key takeaways

  • 'America' (1921) is a poem by Claude McKay that expresses the dichotomous experience of living in America as a black immigrant.
  • America is personified throughout the poem to highlight how it is the people rather than the land itself impacting the narrator.
  • The poem is written in a sonnet form, consisting of fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and an ABABABABABABCC rhyme scheme.
  • Contrasting imagery of cruelty and grandeur is utilised throughout the poem, contributing to the theme of conflict.

America Claude Mckay

'America' (1921) expresses the dichotomous experience of living in America. Although it is a nation of 'might and granite wonders', it also steals the narrator's 'breath of life'.

By referring to America as 'she', McKay personifies the nation, adding a human element to the poem. McKay could also be symbolically referring to The Statue of Liberty.

Although the narrator of 'America' is not directly named, it may be Claude McKay himself, who experienced America as a black immigrant first hand.

'America' was first published in 1921.

Figurative language is non-literal language used to convey a specific meaning. Figurative language, such as personification and metaphors, is used throughout 'America' to convey the nation's nature.

Final America Claude Mckay Quiz

Question

Who wrote 'America' (1921)?

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Answer

Claude McKay

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Question

When was 'America' published?

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Answer

1921

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Question

True or false? 'America is written in free verse.

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Answer

False! 'America' is written in a Sonnet form.

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Question

Which rhyme scheme is used in 'America'?

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Answer

ABABABABABABCC 

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Question

Which Supreme Court ruling in America led to the desegregation of schools?

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Answer

Brown v. Board of Education, 1954

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Question

By 1920, how many people had immigrated to the U.S.A?

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Answer

40 million.

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Question

When was the Emergency Quota Act instated?

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Answer

1921

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Question

What technique is this quote an example of?


'I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.'

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Answer

Enjambment 

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Question

True or false? America is personified throughout the poem 'America'.

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Answer

True! McKay refers to America as 'she' throughout the poem.

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Question

What is a plosive?

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Answer

A consonant sound created by suddenly releasing air after stopping the airflow, these sounds include; 't', 'k', 'p', 'g', 'd', and 'b'. 

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Question

What two techniques is this quote an example of?


'she feeds me bread of bitterness'

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Answer

Personification and alliteration 

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Question

Which American landmark may George McKay be referencing in 'America'?

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Answer

The Statue of Liberty.

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Question

Which of these is an example of an oxymoron in 'America'.

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Answer

Cultured hell

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Question

What is the tone of America?

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Answer

Pensive

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Question

Which of these are not imagery featured in America? Select two.

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Answer

Christianity 

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