Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in “Quicksand” and “Passing”

Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 41, Number 1, Negotiating Trauma and Affect (Spring 2016)
Published 2016-01-25
pages 165-192
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlv083

Rafael Walker, Assistant Professor of English
Baruch College, City University of New York

Winner of MLA’s 2016 Crompton-Noll Award for Best Essay in LGBTQ Studies.

This paper challenges the pervasive tendency to treat Larsen’s work as explorations of black women’s lives and examines the distinctly biracial perspective that her fiction attempts to elaborate. I argue that her novels employ narratives of frustrated desire in order to show the impossibility of the racially liminal subject in a society that thinks in black and white. In developing this argument, the essay explains the aesthetic and theoretical implications that ensue from taking this biracial perspective seriously. For instance, it shows how each novel mobilizes a distinct ontology of biracial identity—biraciality as synthesis in one case (Quicksand [1928]) and biraciality as oscillation in the other (Passing [1929]). In its discussion of the aesthetics of Larsen’s fiction, the essay demonstrates how this shift in racial perspective enables us to reassess her endings, which vexed critics in her day and continue to vex readers in ours (including the scholar arguably most responsible for Larsen’s current prominence, Deborah E. McDowell). Aware that aversion to the essentialist “tragic mulatta” trope has been one of the primary impediments to concentrating on biraciality in Larsen’s work, I offer ways of understanding Larsen’s focus on biraciality as more—rather than less—subversive of American racial ideology than previous studies suggest.

The fictions of Nella Larsen have long been understood as daring explorations of black women’s sexuality and subjectivity. Deborah E. McDowell is one of the earliest and most influential exponents of this idea, suggesting that Larsen portrays “black female sexuality in a literary era that often sensationalized it and pandered to the stereotype of the primitive exotic” (xvi). According to Hazel V. Carby, Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928) is “the first explicitly sexual black heroine in black women’s fiction” (“It” 471). Similarly, Cheryl A. Wall claims: “Both Quicksand and Passing contemplate the inextricability of the racism and sexism that confront the black woman in her quest for selfhood” (89). The association between Larsen’s work and black women’s subjectivity was so entrenched by the time that Judith Butler wrote on Passing (1929) that she hesitates before applying psychoanalysis to the novel: “There are clearly risks in trying to think in psychoanalytic terms about Larsen’s story, which, after all, published in 1929, belongs to the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, and ought properly to be read in the context of that cultural and social world” (173). (It becomes clear from Butler’s subsequent remarks that the “context” she has in mind is primarily racial, particularly in her claim that “both stories revolve on the impossibility of sexual freedom for black women” [178].) More recent studies have maintained this view of Larsen’s fiction, bearing such titles as “Queering Helga Crane: Black Nativism in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2011) and “The New Negro Flâneuse in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2008).1

I mention but a few of the many examples of the critical tendency to take for granted that Larsen was chiefly concerned with black women, but they suffice to reveal what strikes me as an “elephant in the room” in Larsen studies: that all of her heroines are racially ambiguous, if not explicitly biracial. In numerous ways, Larsen takes pains to show that something about her major women characters significantly sets them apart from the less ambiguously black women around them, whether it be that they can pass for white or that they have a white parent.2 If Larsen had intended to explore the experiences, psychology, or sexuality of black women specifically, it seems odd that she should have chosen to do so, in both novels she wrote, through such ambiguously raced women. Why did she not concentrate instead on a woman like Felise Freeland, a spirited…

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