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This seminar is a hybrid event, available to join in person or online via Zoom. 

About the speakers:

Jak Peake (University of Essex), 'In the Whirlpool of Modernism, “the English of Empire”: Reflections on Claude McKay’s Poetry' (presenting online)

Daniel Abdalla (University of Liverpool), ‘A Strange and Secret Thing’: Staging Heredity in the Harlem Renaissance (presenting in-person)


Claude McKay may now be thought of as both a founding poet of the New Negro (or Harlem) Renaissance and a radical black Modernist of international prominence. Yet McKay’s poetry may still pose a challenge in terms of its Modernist purchase from a purely stylistic point of view. How do we read his poetry which, however revolutionary in content, is grounded in the lyric tradition? What are we to make of his predilection for the sonnet? Furthermore, how do we interpret his preference for a formal English – as opposed to a blues or jazz – register, after his earlier spell of publishing Jamaican poetry in dialect? 

To answer these questions, I will focus on the milieu and context in which McKay’s poems were published – paying attention to the placement of his verse in little magazines. I will also reflect on his brief brush with Imagism and “New Verse” in the mid-1920s – where his work shows the influence of William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot – to see what this tells about his encounter with what might be termed a key branch of Anglo-American Modernism. I will also consider how his colonial background and upbringing in Jamaica shaped his approach to poetry and his relationship with the English language. 


Jak Peake is a Fulbright scholar and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. His book, Between the Bocas: A Literary Geography of Western Trinidad (2017), examines writing of and about Trinidad from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, placing works by well-known authors such as C. L. R. James, V. S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon alongside writing by figures such as Monique Roffey and Yseult Bridges. His current research focuses on U.S.-Caribbean cultural crosscurrents, the New Negro and Black Modernism over an 1890s-1930s period. He is currently the spring 2024 Stuart Hall Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University.

W.E.B. Du Bois is best known for his pioneering work on race across the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the literary work The Souls of Black Folk (1903); however, his original dramatic works—which number nearly 2,000 pages—remain almost completely critically neglected. This paper draws on extensive archival materials in order to recover Du Bois’s theatrical writings in the context of European modernist drama. This is done in three interlinked ways: by highlighting the historical links between the playwrights of the Abbey Theatre and Harlem Renaissance; by showing Du Bois’s engagement with evolutionary science on stage through such themes as heredity, embryology, and race; and by close-reading the plays through the lens of ‘anti-theatricality.’ I argue that attending to Du Bois’s drama forges new connections between Du Bois—as well as other critically-neglected playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance such as Willis Richardson and Marita Bonner—and George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett. These global relationships place new emphasis on theatre in modernist accounts of literary innovation. 

Daniel Ibrahim Abdalla is Lecturer in English: 1800 to present at the University of Liverpool. His first monograph on heredity in transatlantic American culture is the origin of today’s talk, and the full manuscript is currently under review. Work from the project has been published in Modern Drama and is forthcoming in the Cambridge Companion to Modernist Drama. He has recently been awarded a W.E.B. Du Bois Centre Fellowship for summer 2024 and is also developing a new major research project on the diverse literary history of the North and South Poles. 

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