America | Study Guide

Claude McKay

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America | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

As a sonnet, "America" has three quatrains, or four-line stanzas, in which alternating lines rhyme, followed by a rhyming couplet, all combined in one stanza. The quatrains have the rhyme pattern ABAB, CDCD, and EFEF, and the ending couplet has the pattern GG.

Quatrain 1

The speaker refers to a "she" who feeds him "bread of bitterness" and sinks her "tiger's tooth" into his neck, stealing his life. Yet, despite this, the speaker confesses that he loves this "cultured hell" that challenges him. The title introduces the subject, America, so the "she" is inferred to be America, the poem's personified subject—that is, America is an inanimate entity to which the speaker ascribes human qualities.

Quatrain 2

The speaker feels that the vitality of America flows in his blood like the ocean's tides and that this vitality—her vitality—gives him strength to withstand America's hate. Her vigor is so strong that, "like a flood," it sweeps him away. The quatrain's last line begins with "Yet," an echo of the opening word of the poem, although. The speaker then compares himself to a rebel who "fronts a king in state," meaning that he stands in confrontation with a greater power and authority.

Quatrain 3

Despite standing in rebellion "within her walls," the speaker says he has not the slightest bit of fear or hate in return. He doesn't even have "a word of jeer," or mockery. The quatrain then shifts from describing his present existence in America to the future. He can see "darkly" into the days ahead, viewing America's "might and granite wonders." These wonders might refer to the country's mountains, its buildings and monuments, or both.

Couplet

The final couplet offers a dark conclusion to the speaker's conflicted visions. The speaker says that over time, America's "priceless treasures" will sink beneath "the touch of Time's unerring hand" into the sand. Like America itself, "Time" is personified here; its "unerring hand" means that time makes no mistakes. The speaker implies that a country that does not love all of its citizens—that sinks its teeth into the throats of some rather than embracing all—will eventually lose its might.

Analysis

Structure and Tone

Some 20th-century writers chose to innovate on formal poetic structures. For instance, in her famous villanelle "One Art," the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–79) used small variations in sentence structures to add nuance to the repeated lines that are a part of the villanelle form. McKay, however, adheres strictly to the conventions of the sonnet, including iambic pentameter.

Writing within this structure creates both tension and balance. McKay sets up the tension by beginning the first line with the word although, suggesting a contrast or conflict and the possibility that readers are joining an argument about America. The four quatrains continue to build tension with surprise shifts and paradoxes conveyed through phrases such as "I love this cultured hell." The phrase creates an uneasy tone in this opening quatrain. Both words, although and hell, have strong connotations, and hell suggests a place from which the speaker can't escape.

Traditional sonnets praise love, including unrequited love. Here, McKay uses the sonnet to show a speaker who loves a country that not only does not love him back but also treats him with brutality. He uses the final couplet to shift the speaker's—and therefore the reader's—gaze to the future, inviting them to envision "the days ahead." Those days may be dark, the poem suggests—not necessarily for the speaker, but for America, whose "might and granite wonders" are now "sinking in the sand." The speaker's tone is at once critical, despairing, and reverent toward America as he vacillates between describing her hatred and his love for her "cultured hell." While America is portrayed as strong and fierce in the three quatrains, the tone of the last two lines is melancholy, suggesting that a continued racist path will lead to the country's decline. The final couplet also suggests the possibility of the rebel's victory over oppression.

McKay uses alliteration (repetition of sounds at the beginning of words) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) to create rhythm throughout the sonnet. Examples of alliteration include the phrases "bread of bitterness," "tiger's tooth," "within her walls," and "touch of time." The assonance found in phrases such as "strength erect" and "I gaze into the days" creates a softer sound that highlights the tension between the speaker's blunt masculinity (also suggested in the word erect) and the softer qualities traditionally associated with a "she."

Imagery and Personification

McKay takes the traditional form of a sonnet—often an ode to love—and personifies America as a woman, the "she" to whom the speaker refers. Through this lens, the speaker's love is unrequited (unreturned), a common concern in traditional sonnets. For example, the speaker laments that though America "feeds" him, she gives "bread of bitterness." This image contrasts the sustaining nature of bread with something bitter.

The images of bitter bread and—in the next line—a tiger's tooth biting the speaker's throat suggest that the threats the speaker feels from America are both internal (he is being "fed") and external (he feels a sharp bite). Yet, despite these threats, the speaker describes a sense of pride and awe at America's size and strength: "her bigness" sweeps his being "like a flood," and "her vigor" gives him the strength to withstand her hate. America has powerful qualities that the speaker can't ignore despite the suffering she also causes for him.

The speaker further personifies America as a woman who is both motherly (she feeds him) and fierce (sinking a "tiger's tooth" into his throat). He uses the sensory language of feeding and feeling to evoke these visceral sensations that run counter to what readers might expect from a mother figure, making America seem monstrous instead of nurturing. McKay also uses the imagery of water to demonstrate America's power: she has a "vigor" that flows like tides and a "bigness" that sweeps the speaker's "being like flood." This personifies America as something vast and overwhelming that cannot be contained or controlled. The final image of the poem is of "granite wonders" turning into "priceless treasures sinking in the sand." This image leaves open the possibility that America's strength and might may not last forever and seems, in fact, to give the speaker some power back.

Duality

The speaker of "America" presents numerous images that suggest the dual nature of the country.

The phrase "cultured hell" embodies such a duality. The meanings of the two words are contradictory. Yet, McKay links them to show that just as the speaker must swallow "bitter bread," which is itself a duality, as bread is a symbol in the Christian religion, so the speaker must love America's rich cultural offerings. But living in the United States is also a kind of hell for the speaker. In the ritual of Christian Communion, followers of the religion eat bread to symbolize sharing in and having union with the spiritual life of Christ. The negative and the positive sides of America's "cultured hell" and "bitter bread" link inextricably, just as the speaker claims he draws strength from his hurtful experiences, another duality. The phrase "bitter bread" is used only in relation to America, not in a religious sense, to reinforce that America is a political body, not a source of spiritual nourishment.

Similarly, the speaker declares himself a rebel within America's walls but states that the country itself is the source of his rebellious strength. The last two lines of the poem suggest the logical conclusion of this tension. In attempting to oppress its rebels and hold them down, America gives them strength and purpose, a contradictory relationship. The country trains the rebels who might someday stand with the speaker and watch her "treasures" sink into the sand.

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