Edited by Rianna Walcott
Art by Jazmine Sheckleford www.facebook.com/
Despite taking courses titled ‘International Modernism’, ‘World Gothic’ and ‘Comparative Feminist Drama’, it wasn’t until enrolling in a ‘Black American Fiction’ seminar in the final semester of my degree that I was first assigned a text written by a woman of colour, Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). Although I initially I felt guilt that I’d apparently chosen classes with so little diversity, I soon realised that Passing would have made a fitting addition to a range of courses I’d studied previously. A concise but complex novel, Passing packs articulate discussions of class, gender, sexuality and race into just over 100 pages. It’s an injustice to the quality of Larsen’s prose to see it pigeonholed into the category of ‘black’ fiction, rather than used to enhance a course on something else entirely. The fact that it took enrolling in a seminar built around race before it was addressed in one of my classrooms speaks to the prevailing issue of the erasure of minority voices in academe.
Keen to read more of Larsen’s work, I settled down with her first novel Quicksand (1928). A similarly slender yet powerful read, Quicksand puts a woman’s desire to reject societal expectations in direct conflict with her inherent desire to ‘belong’, a tension which resonates throughout this book. This semi-autobiographical work tells the story of Helga Crane, a young mixed-race woman of Danish and West Indian parents, and her search for a sense of belonging as she grapples with her racial, religious and gender identities. Larsen’s novel draws upon her own identity as a Danish-West Indian woman born in the United States, who travelled to Europe as a result of feeling ostracised by both ‘white’ and ‘black’ communities. In the narrator’s words, “[Helga] could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity” (Larsen, 7).
In some ways, Helga’s eventual return to the United States, and her “facile surrender to the irresistible ties of race” (92) seems almost inevitable, as we witness her trying and failing to transcend the issue of race in each community she inhabits. But Quicksand is a novel about more than just race. It also engages closely with questions of class, gender and political dynamics in a diverse range of communities. From the affluent white elites of Denmark to churches on the streets of Harlem, Larsen offers her reader a vivid and insightful depiction of Helga’s enduring search for fulfilment and happiness. This search for identity, while arguably a universal experience, is one felt perhaps most keenly among members of marginal groups, or those seeking a sense of acceptance among a group they don’t immediately ‘belong’ to. Though Helga is not necessarily a ‘likeable’ character, her strength and tenacity in the face of adversity make her an engaging and compelling protagonist, and her story will grab the attention of any number of audiences.
Intrigued to learn that Larsen wrote just two novels in her lifetime, I settled down with a copy of her most recent biography, George Hutchison’s In Search of Nella Larsen. Her biography makes an equally compelling read, and Hutchison has gone a long way towards correcting many misinterpretations and myths that have plagued Larsen and her writing. Although she achieved critical acclaim for both novels, a false plagiarism scandal tarnished her reputation and put an end to her budding career as a writer. She died in obscurity, and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn. Her writing was dismissed as “trivial, misguided and poorly written” (Hutchison, 2), and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that her work became more commonly studied in classrooms. Aside from their content, both Passing and Quicksand are also noteworthy for their formal innovation. These novels are prime examples of literary modernism, and would be well-situated in the study of the ‘American’ novel, rather than just the study of the Harlem Renaissance.
Given the academy’s current shift in favour of more ‘transnational’ scholarship, Helga’s status as a ‘transatlantic woman’ makes Quicksand more relevant than ever. While putting words like ‘international’ in the title of a course does not necessarily guarantee diversity in the texts studied, this shift away from undergraduate courses focussed on ‘British’ or ‘American’ history and literature does suggest some scope for a more rounded study of these disciplines. With projects such as ‘Transatlantic Literary Women’ at the University of Glasgow trying to draw attention to under-appreciated writing by women and minority groups, there is certainly potential for writers like Larsen to at last receive some well-earned attention, both within and outside of academia.
Finally, while Larsen’s writing has at last begun to receive renewed scholarly attention, until 2006 her grave remained unmarked. That is, until a young Danish-West Indian writer, Heidi Durrow, requested permission to arrange for a headstone for Larsen. After 42 years in an unmarked grave, and given Larsen’s lifelong search for a sense of identity and belonging, I believe the words Durrow chose were fitting ones: ‘Nella Larsen. A novelist remembered’.
Hutchison, George. In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing: Two Novels. London: Serpents Tail Classics, 2014.
About the author
Sarah is a recent graduate of English Literature and History at the University of Edinburgh. She is soon to begin an American Studies MLitt at the University of Glasgow, generously funded by the Janet S. Christie Bequest. Her research interests lie primarily in late twentieth century American political and cultural history.