Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
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Quicksand (1928) was the first novel by by Nella Larsen, an author associated with the Harlem Renaissance. A story with autobiographical elements, it was generally well received, though not a big seller. Helga Crane, the main character, like Nella Larsen, is the mixed-race daughter of a white Danish mother and a black father.
The plot takes her back and forth from Denmark, “Naxos” (a thinly veiled version of the Tuskegee Institute, where Larsen worked briefly), and Harlem. Wherever Helga goes, she fails to find a community in which she can be comfortable with who she is.
Nella Larsen’s fictional young women of mixed race — in this book and in Passing — grapple for a sense of identity and belonging, mirroring her own life. Larsen never felt quite at home in either the European community of her mother, nor in either the black world or the white in the U.S., at a time when the “color line” was strictly drawn.
Quicksand is an appropriate title for the book. Apart from societal conditions over which she has no control, some of the messes that Helga sinks into are of her own making.
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Themes in Quicksand
Ann Allen Shockley, in Afro-American Women Writers 1746 – 1933, encapsulated some of the dominant themes and issues in Quicksand, concluding that this novel, along with Passing, places Nella Larsen in the avant-garde of black women authors of psychological novels.
“Quicksand, in the context of today’s genres, could fall into the realm of an autobiographical novel, for it echoed the life of its author. Like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Larsen also was quietly feminist in her work.
At a time when black churches were considered sacrosanct pillars of their community, Larsen dared to delineate a crude unpolished black southern minister in the form of Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green. He takes advantage not only of the women in his church but of his wife.
In the pulpit, Green propounds religion as a solace for black peoples’ woes, thus keeping the poor and illiterate congregation wrapped in poverty and ignorance rather than proposing other, more worldly solutions.
Larsen portrayed sexism through Helga’s domination by the Reverend Green physically, emotionally, and economically.”
Rediscovered and reissued
When a dual edition of Quicksand and Passing was published in 1986 by Rutgers University Press, Hoda Zaki, then chair of the Department of Political Science at Hampton University wrote:
“Much credit must be given to recent feminist scholarship for rediscovering and reviving novels written by women, works which for a variety of reasons have been unfairly neglected.
Nella Larsen’s two novels, Quicksand and Passing, were critically acclaimed when first published in the late 1920s, and she was praised as one of the most gifted writers of the Harlem Renaissance. For decades her works have gone unread by many who would have appreciated her spare, evocative prose and her provocative treatment of such issued as gender, race, and class in America.
… Nella Larsen uses her marginal position in society as a black woman to describe the social and racial constrains which impede individuals from being spontaneous. She has a discriminating eye for the absurdities of bourgeois life, whether black or white, and she depicts marriage as deadening for both sexes.
Her critique is tempered by an appreciation for the cultural and political ferment found in middle class, black, and intellectual circles in the 1920s.
Quicksand and Passing can be savored on many levels: aesthetically for their careful craftsmanship; historically for their images of the 1920s; psychologically, for their insights into individual alienation; and sociologically, for their descriptions of racial and sexual issues. Readers will find her novels absorbing and will wish her writing career had been more prolific.”
Following are portions of two reviews from 1928, the year in which Passing was published. It’s fascinating to view the work from the perspective of that time, rather than the long lens of the decades gone by.
1928 review of Quicksand from The New York Age
This review from the New York Age, an important black newspaper, is dated June 23, 1928:
Quicksand by Nella Larsen is a novel of frustration, which presents a peculiar study in the psychology of her heroine, whose life is a failure though no one’s fails but her ow innate perverseness.
Helga Crane was the daughter of a Danish mother and a [black] father, and her temperament alternated between the two different strains, with the disastrous result that she could adopt neither permanently nor even find refuge in a middle of the road course.
Repelling the growing interest of the educator who she discovered too late was the man she really loved, she went to Denmark and disappointed her mother’s family by refusing to marry a Danish artist, who became fascinated by her. Her return to New York opened her eyes too late, for the man she loved had married her friend and proved faithful to his choice.
The incident of her accidental attendance at a religions revival meeting, with its cataclysmic effect, and her hasty marriage to the unlettered preacher, inconsistent as they sound, are made to appear as the inevitable outcome of the emotional conflict within her.
Her submersion into the road of the unwilling mother of numerous progeny, whom she had to rear in primitive surroundings, is invested with a sense of human tragedy.
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Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen on Amazon*
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Another 1928 review of Quicksand
This review from the Reading (PA) Times, is dated May 14, 1928:
Here again is the old theme of mixed blood, [black] and Scandinavian this time, with the North, South, Chicago, Harlem, and even Denmark for the backgrounds.
The story has to do with Helga Crane, a daughter of a Danish woman and a nameless [black] man. She suffers the discriminations dealt to Negroes in Chicago and her education and the instincts she inherited from her mother make her feel those abuses more acutely.
At the age of 22 — she is a school teacher then — she revolts and flees. Throughout the book she revolts. Even in the last paragraph, after having borne four children as rapidly as the exigencies of nature permits, she revolts at the idea of bringing children into the world to suffer — and goes about preparing to give birth to the fifth.
The real charm of this book lies in Miss Larsen’s delicate achievement in maintaining for a long time an indefinable, wistful feeling — that feeling of longing and at the same time a conscious realization of the impossibility of obtaining — that is contained in the idea of Helga Crane.
… It runs beautifully and artistically through the maze of realities and artificialities; the prim correctness of the school at Naxos; the mad run of Chicago; the intellectual absurdities of Harlem; the cold gentleness of Copenhagen.
Always [there is] a wistful note of longing, of anxiety of futile searching, of an unconscious desire to balance black and white blood into something that is more tangible than a thing than merely is neither black nor white, of a nervous, fretful search for happiness.
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Passing is published just a year later
Passing, Larsen’s next novel was published just a year later, in 1929. It’s more tightly plotted and paced, showing the growth of an artist who has mastered her craft. Unfortunately, she virtually disappeared from the literary community not long after.
Interest in Nella Larsen’s work has grown since Passing was reissued in 2001. She has been described as “not only the premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, but also an important figure in American modernism.”
With the growing interest in Passing as a modern classic, Quicksand has also been rediscovered. The two books have been published in one volume in contemporary editions.
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