Tropical Transformation

Tropical Transformation

December 16, 2019

Harvard University

Human lives could be mystifying. To a casual reader, Claude McKay’s Tropics in New York, a narrative poem from 1922 (Lancashire), shows a person getting nostalgic about their childhood gazing at some fruits through a window of a grocery store. The nostalgia could emerge from several emotions. This brilliant piece of literary work is mainly a narrative poem; which means that it tells a short story to the readers. Readers might assume that the poem is about hunger or sudden craving as it talks about fruits a lot – but what they might skip is the sadness and emotional breakdowns the poet might be having while adopting a new life so different from what he was raised on. By analyzing The Tropics in New York, we can see that McKay is having emotional breakdowns in his mind reimaging his life back in the tropics while gazing through elements i.e. fruits; similar to his home through a window of a grocery store in New York. This is interesting because it shows the drastic change in McKay’s lifestyle and the city around him.

The Tropics in New York is a poem by McKay that talks about his life back in his homeland, and the United States. McKay walks down his memory lane of his life in the tropics, while gazing through tropical fruits at a grocery store. The poem tells a short story about the life of McKay back in the tropics and shows the harsh reality he was facing in New York. In the poem, McKay gets a hit on his imagination of his old life in the tropics which brings him back to the harsh reality his new life as an immigrant in New York. I have chosen this specific poem due to the realistic vibe it has in it. McKay’s story has allowed me to feel the pain he had to feel while stumbling upon something familiar from his home and having to adopt with the all the changes in a big city. I believe he discusses a common feeling, but the theme is relevant to every human being because most of us move away from our hometowns in search of a better life.

Before we start digging into how McKay got reminded of his home; we should probably consider searching why he ended up imagining his old life first; or why did he even have a different life? Through the poem McKay tried to tell a story that is sad and nostalgic at the same time. In the following lines:

“Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,

Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,

And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,

Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,”

McKay describes fruits and vegetables such as ripe bananas, ginger-root, cocoa and avocados he saw as perfect for a parish fair. From a quick gaze it is easy to fall for these lines as a description of the fruits. But after a careful observation it is not so hard to understand that McKay is having a hard time adopting with the new environment. So, the reason McKay started imagining his old life was probably because the exact same elements he observed had a connection to his old life back in the tropics. The last two words of the fourth line leaves a clue about McKay’s life prior to his arrival in New York. His story shows the change he had to go through after immigration. The words parish fair suggest that McKay is from an agricultural community. The change McKay sees in his new life is the artificialization of his surroundings. New York might be a place of opportunities and dreams for a lot of people; but not for all. McKay, coming from a place totally different from New York does not find himself suitable for the change he needs to adapt with. New York is a forever changing place. The artificiality in the city spans beyond imagination. McKay had a totally different life before, but he had to adjust with the new city for probably a better yet artificial life. Living among all the changes and artificiality in New York, the fruits he saw through the window made him remember and compare with his tropical life.

My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;

A wave of longing through my body

And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,

I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

One thing a young immigrant in a big city like New York might have faced back then would be alienation; which lead to loneliness. In the poem, McKay found comfort in those fruits which were familiar to his home; and were placed in front of a window at a grocery store. However, this comfort did not last for long. In the last lines, he describes himself as an alien to the environment where he immigrated and started having mental breakdown remembering his old life back in the tropics.

Once we start thinking and ask questions about the changes around McKay in the city; we should ask why a person could be so alienated and why would it get to a point where he cannot adapt to the changes and just fall into an emotional trauma? Thinking from a general perspective, life in the tropics is much simpler than life in a big city like New York. The change we see in the poet’s lifestyle while trying to adapt to New York was huge; coming from a tropical village as the lines suggest in the poem. Life in a tropical village is something free from worries. It is natural and the community was well knit together. However, the life in New York is not quite the same. First, it is as artificial as it could possibly be. There is little to no interaction between communities and individuals which left McKay feel alienated from the rest and being alienated from everything the city had to offer made him lonely and go through a mental breakdown. Humans cannot live alone but McKay’s case is different from a lot of humans. He immigrated to a new country with a hope for a better future; which is not clearly mentioned in the poem, but it is easy to guess from the time and the changes around the environment he was in. McKay was all by himself in a lonely city and had very little to relate himself with. He probably faced racism but that is not clear in the poem. He found the fruits that he described in his first stanza to be a medium that connected him with his past and took him on a nostalgic trip back in time. He was hungry but probably did not have the means to spend. It might not have been the same in his village. The way he describes his old life and signals the changes around him shows a picture of how different his life was back in the tropics. Meanwhile his new life as an immigrant in New York is filled with loneliness, poverty and lack of interaction. These could have a link to racism, but I would not go there as it is not explicitly mentioned in the poem. However, I could sense some traces of poverty from the last stanza where he mentions himself being hungry but wept in the end. He could not buy any of those fruits that reminded him of his home, or it could also mean he wanted to stay away from those elements so that it does not make him nostalgic repeatedly. But it is clear from all these evidence that he was sad and emotionally broke and had nobody around him that he could share his feelings with. McKay tried to tell a story that was very important to his life and thousands of immigrants just like him. It shows that even though a brick and mortar city might seem prosperous and heavenly it is the people in life that matters most, which in his case, was equal to zero. His attachment to his home, a new alienated life as a solo immigrant, little gesture of nostalgia and poverty shows exactly why McKay was having the emotional breakdown which was clearly represented in the last word of the poem wept. When there are no walls left to turn, there is very few things to do other than shedding tears. This poem tells a powerful yet sad story of McKay’s life as an immigrant in New York.

It is important to note, at end, that McKay tried to walk away from the elements that reminded him of home. McKay was having a lonely life and had very little to do to fix it. It is clear to us that he would have preferred the life back in his village. Throughout the poem we can see the city changing into a lonely, selfish place for McKay and the memories of his home were coming back to him with the familiar elements he stumbled upon in the lonely city, but he could not control what was bound to happen. Maybe people just must accept and adapt to changing environments, leaving their roots; their dear ones and simple way of life in order to pave way for a better future.

Works Cited:

Lancashire, Ian. Representative Poetry Online. May 1920. Web. Dec 2019. <>.

Works Cited:

Lancashire, Ian. Representative Poetry Online. May 1920. Web. Dec 2019. <>.