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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

[4553] James Allen, Portrait of Nella Larsen(1928), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Nella Larsen, like Quicksand‘s Helga, was born to parents of different races: her father was West Indian and her mother was Danish. After her father died (when Larsen was two), her mother married a white man and raised Larsen in an all-white environment. Her adopted family was embarrassed by her dark skin, and Larsen always felt that she did not belong. From 1907 to 1908 she studied at a high school associated with Fisk University. She left Fisk and spent the next three years with relatives in Denmark, auditing classes at the University of Copenhagen. In 1912 she returned to the United States and pursued a nursing degree and career in New York. She married Elmer Samuel Imes, an African American physicist who worked at Fisk University. Larsen gave up nursing in 1922 and worked for the New York Public Library. She became involved with the artistic community in Harlem, and four years later, she decided to pursue a career as a writer.

Larsen completed two novels–Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), about a light-skinned black woman passing herself as white–which the prestigious publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf published. She was assisted by a white patron of Harlem Renaissance writers, Carl Van Vechten, himself the author of the controversial novel Nigger Heaven. While many believed that a celebration of the “primitive” aspects of African American culture benefited the advancement of the race, others thought that the depictions of blacks, and especially black women, in Van Vechten’s and other authors’ works contributed to a construction of racial identity that severely limited possibilities for African Americans.

Quicksand wrestles overtly with this problem of establishing an “authentic” racial identity: Helga prizes much about upper-class white culture, but also longs to understand and appreciate those things that distinguish African Americans. Throughout the novel, the mixed-race Helga finds herself torn in her loyalties and disconnected from both whites and blacks.

Larsen’s novels were well received, and in 1930 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in creative writing, the first African American woman to win one. She went to Spain to work, but she published little after receiving the award. One short story drew allegations of plagiarism, and Larsen probably stopped writing as a result of the controversy over her work. She returned to nursing and withdrew from the literary circles of which she had been a part. Her novels were largely forgotten until they were reissued in 1986, when her reputation as a significant Harlem Renaissance writer was revived.

Teaching Tips

  • Quicksand would work well in conjunction with a unit on the Harlem Renaissance as well as one on modernism. You might teach this novel and the concerns it raises about black identity and sexuality together with Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” or “Mulatto,” or works by Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, or James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored ManQuicksand also shares many concerns with Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and if you are reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you might also consider how mixed-race women’s sexuality is constructed (for more on the figure of the “tragic mulatta,” see Unit 7). If you read Quicksand in the context of other Harlem Renaissance writers, you may want to spend some time giving students a sense of Harlem society in the 1920s. You could begin with a discussion of the “Great Migration” of African Americans to the North and especially to northern cities as background for the coalescence of African American culture. The archive contains some photos you may want to assign or look at together in class; juxtaposing these with Larsen’s descriptions of the activity and night life of Harlem could help locate Helga in a historical moment. For specific suggestions, see Unit 10.
  • Quicksand shares with other works in this unit a character’s sense of alienation from America and search abroad for an environment more conducive to self-development. Like the selections by Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Quicksand concludes rather bleakly–Helga’s attempted improvement of her life ends in ultimate failure, as does Dexter’s, Charlie’s, and Harry’s. You might consider discussing with your class how Helga’s difficulty adapting herself to American society differs from the problems the white authors explore.
  • You’ll probably want to go over the varying positions different characters (Helga, Anne, Dr. Anderson, etc.) take on the “race problem,” articulating the tenets of “uplift” and the concern that middle-class blacks were in danger of losing touch with their heritage. You may want to ask why certain characters find it intolerable to socialize with whites, even those sympathetic to the struggles facing African Americans. You might extend this discussion to consider contemporary viewpoints on African American identity and white America.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does Helga find so objectionable about Naxos? What does she find appealing about social life in Harlem? Why do you think she tires of Harlem?
  2. Comprehension: Helga wonders, “why couldn’t she have two lives”? What are the two lives she wishes to lead and why do they seem to her so incompatible?
  3. Comprehension: The furnishings of rooms and the clothing people wear receive a great deal of attention in this novel. What do furniture and clothing tell us about these characters? What is the impact of these descriptions on our understanding of the values and aspirations of Helga in particular?
  4. Context: The novel begins with a poem by Langston Hughes about “Being neither white nor black.” Why do you think Larsen presents Helga as being neither rather than being both?
  5. Context: Bessie Smith’s music is widely available. Compare her self-presentation in music and in the Van Vechten photo to that of Nella Larsen and her character. How does Smith’s presentation of African American identity or culture complicate or contradict that presented in Quicksand?
  6. Exploration: Quicksand follows Helga Crane’s search for a place where she belongs. Consider how other works you’ve read also chronicle people’s searches to find somewhere they feel at home. How are Helga’s concerns similar to or different from those of the characters in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the speaker in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or other characters in works you’ve read? How do the issues raised in this novel contribute to your understanding of the work of other Harlem Renaissance writers such as Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, or Countee Cullen?
  7. Exploration: Consider Quicksand in conjunction with Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” What does Quicksand have to say about the preservation of ethnic heritage, and how does Walker’s story respond? These works were written over four decades apart; what seems to be different for the characters in Walker’s story and what seems to have remained the same?

Selected Archive Items

[4553] James Allen, Portrait of Nella Larsen (1928), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Author of Quicksand, Larsen wrote novels and short stories that explore the intersection of race, class, and gender. She composed during the Harlem Renaissance.

[7405] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Josephine Baker (1949), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-93000].
Photograph of performer Josephine Baker in Paris. A major center for modernist artists, Paris was thought to be less restrictive than America.

[7406Duke Ellington, half-length portrait, seated at piano, facing right (1965), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-123232].
Photograph of jazz musician Duke Ellington playing the piano. Rhythms and images from jazz influenced writers and visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

[7408] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Bessie Smith Holding Feathers (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-94955].
Writers and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance debated how to best depict African Americans, especially in terms of gender. Some were influenced by primitivism, or an emphasis on earlier African images.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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