John Reuland

“’Living Up From It:’ Music Performance and Alternative Temporalities of Loss in Claude McKay’s Banjo”

Near the end of Banjo, Claude McKay’s novel about an orchestra of diasporic Africans in Marseille, the reader learns that its eponymous hero witnessed the lynching of his own brother in the U.S. South.  Reacting to this shocking news, Ray, a Haitian intellectual who is McKay’s author surrogate, reflects that Banjo had given no sign of having endured such a loss.  “No Victorian-long period of featured grief and sable mourning…but a luxuriant living up from it.”  Refusing conventional Western mourning rituals, Banjo shows a “natural gusto for living down the past.

Banjo, I suggest, is a novel in search of an alternative to the backward glance grief.  Through its depictions of musical performance and its recuperation of the banjo, an instrument long associated with the humiliated joy of minstrelsy, the novel seeks a temporal orientation to loss that is more generative, more productive, than “featured grief and sable mourning.”  To this end, Banjo riffs on an analogy between the projective temporality of jazz improvisation and prospective, future-oriented affects such as joy.  McKay thereby imagines a relationship to loss and to the past and to loss that does not follow Freudian rules.  He offers instead a diasporic work of mourning that, rather than merely seeking a substitute object, affirms and creates as well—a relation to loss akin to what Nietzsche characterizes as a power of “transforming and assimilating everything past and alien…[to] reshape broken forms out of itself.”


John Reuland specializes in nineteenth and twentieth century American literature.  He is at work on a dissertation that examines how American writers imagine what kinds of social forms are made possible, or negated, by aspirations toward democracy.