American Literature Nella Larsen
by
Dorothy Stringer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0107

Introduction

Nella Larsen (b. 1891–d. 1963) was born in Chicago to a white, Danish immigrant mother and a black Virgin Islander father. Her father’s early death, and her mother’s remarriage to a white man, meant isolation and rejection in childhood, and limited contact with her natal family as an adult. Larsen visited Denmark in childhood, and again in her late teens, and was educated briefly at Fisk University, at Lincoln Hospital’s nursing school in the Bronx, and at the Library School of the New York Public Library. She married Elmer Imes, an African American physicist, in 1919, and the couple developed an interracial, Harlem-based circle of writers, performers, artists, and intellectuals. Larsen’s earliest known works are two 1926 pulp stories about presumptively white characters. However, in response to the cultural ferment of post-Great Migration Harlem, and with the encouragement of her friend Carl Van Vechten—a white, gay critic, novelist, and saloniste interested in black culture—Larsen wrote an autobiographical first novel, Quicksand (1928). This story of a biracial young woman unable to find a place among Southern blacks, Harlemites, or white Danish relatives appeared with Van Vechten’s publisher Knopf and was well received by black and white reviewers alike. Passing (1929), a short, expressionistic novel about phenotypically ambiguous African American women, also received positive notices, and in 1930 Larsen became the first black woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Her success was fragile, though; earlier the same year, a short story brought accusations of plagiarism, and in 1931 Knopf rejected the Guggenheim manuscript. Her marriage also ended in the mid-1930s, and Larsen gradually withdrew from literary friendships and networks. She never published again, and all her manuscripts have been lost. From the mid-1940s almost to her death, she worked as a nurse. Larsen’s fiction was neglected for decades, but interest revived as feminist and African Americanist scholars gained places in the academy during the 1970s and 1980s. After a 1986 reissue of her novels by Rutgers University Press, she became the subject of a new, intense vogue across many sectors of literary study, including not only US and African American literary fields and women’s studies, but also literary theory and queer studies. Readers today emphasize Larsen’s formal polish, intellectual range, psychological depth, and ironic subtlety and have often employed the novels as tools for examining the relationships among class, gender, sexuality, and racial identification in African American literature.

Primary Texts

Once out of print for decades, Larsen’s two novels are available in many inexpensive editions today, though only Kaplan 2007 offers significant apparatus. McDowell 1986 remains the most widely cited edition. Larsen’s three known stories have been collected together only once, in Larson 2001. See also Bibliographies and Textual Scholarship for information on textual variants and the “plagiarism” scandal attached to Larsen’s final publication, “Sanctuary.”

  • Kaplan, Carla, ed. Passing: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

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    This edition includes reviews; selections from Larsen’s letters; selections from other, 19th- and 20th-century black fiction about racial ambiguity; and historical documents related to the “Rhinelander Case,” a sensational 1925 lawsuit involving an accusation of racial passing, as well as a broad selection of secondary sources (some excerpted).

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    • Larson, Charles R., ed. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen. New ed. New York: Anchor, 2001.

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      First published under the title An Intimation of Things Distant in 1992, this collection is the only current source for all three of Larsen’s short stories, “The Wrong Man,” “Freedom,” and “Sanctuary.” Its biographical note is outdated; see Biographies.

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      • McDowell, Deborah E., ed. Quicksand; and, Passing. American Women Writers. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

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        Still the most widely used edition of the novels, this reissue fueled interest in Larsen across wide swathes of literary studies, black studies, women’s studies, and literary theory and likely constituted the biggest institutional factor in her rapid recanonization during the early 1990s.

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        Bibliographies and Textual Scholarship

        As a relatively recent addition to African American and US literary canons, Larsen has never been the subject of a freestanding bibliography, though articles have regularly appeared. McDonald 2000 is the most recent and also offers a comprehensive list of Larsen’s own publications. Kaplan 2007 is a source for bibliography and academic articles on Passing, but there is no equivalent source for Quicksand, the stories, or Larsen’s works considered as a whole. Larsen’s work has, nevertheless, generated significant work since the late 20th century in bibliographic scholarship proper (the study of books as material and cultural artifacts). Two issues stand out. First, the Larsen revival initially bypassed serious textual scholarship. Both McCoy 2001 and Young 2006 argue forcefully that editorial decisions on variant text and book design have significantly shaped post-1990 Larsen criticism, enabling formalist readings while obfuscating important material and historical contingencies. Second, Larsen’s last-published piece, “Sanctuary,” sparked a “plagiarism” scandal in 1930. Both McCaskill 1996 and Larson 2007 counter the received wisdom, established during Larsen’s lifetime and prevalent in much post-1990 scholarship, that the charges were substantial.

        • Hochman, Barbara. “Love and Theft: Plagiarism, Blackface, and Nella Larsen’s ‘Sanctuary.’” American Literature 88.3 (2016): 509–540.

          DOI: 10.1215/00029831-3650223Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

          Hochman examines the “plagiarism” scandal in biographical terms. While Hochman downplays Larsen’s relationships to other black artists and writers in favor of a discussion of Edith Wharton’s putative influence on the text, her discussion of the novelist’s career prospects in a racist publishing industry is valuable.

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          • Kaplan, Carla, ed. Passing: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

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            This classroom edition includes seventeen academic articles on Passing (some in excerpt), as well as a “Select Bibliography.”

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            • Larson, Kelli A. “Surviving the Taint of Plagiarism: Nella Larsen’s ‘Sanctuary’ and Sheila Kaye-Smith’s ‘Mrs. Adis.’” Journal of Modern Literature 30.4 (2007): 82–104.

              DOI: 10.2979/JML.2007.30.4.82Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

              This article demonstrates that, in restaging a known, non-black story with African American characters, Larsen used a common strategy of 1920s black popular theater. The author also usefully tabulates similarities and differences between Larsen’s story and her source Kaye-Smith. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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              • McCaskill, Barbara. “The Folklore of the Coasts in Black Women’s Fiction of the Harlem Renaissance.” College Language Association Journal 39.3 (1996): 273–301.

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                McCaskill identifies scenery and plot in Larsen’s story “Sanctuary” with known themes of black folklore, in a reading that supports the novelist’s own description of her “plagiarized” story’s roots in oral literature.

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                • McCoy, Beth. “Perpetua(l) Notion: Typography, Economy, and Losing Nella Larsen.” In Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr and Megan L. Benton, 97–114. Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

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                  McCoy argues that the 1986 Rutgers edition’s typography (McDowell 1986, cited under Primary Texts) dehistoricizes the text, rendering it newly attractive to critics but also damping down critique of institutional racism. Her discussion of book design and racial politics at Larsen’s publisher (Knopf) during the 1920s is also worthy.

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                  • McDonald, C. Ann. “Nella Larsen (1891–1964).” In American Women Writers, 1900–1945: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Edited by Laurie Champion, 182–191. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

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                    This source lists Larsen’s own publications, as well as approximately thirty secondary sources. The article emphasizes traditional literary scholarship and neglects well-known work in psychoanalytic theory.

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                    • Young, John K. “Passing (On) Textual History: The Ends of Nella Larsen’s Passing.” In Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature. By John K. Young, 37–64. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

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                      Young discusses the unexplained omission of a concluding paragraph from the third printing of the first edition of Passing. His informative discussion of 1920s print culture incorporates a plangent critique of present-day scholars’ tendency to read hermeneutic undecidability in Larsen as formal choice rather than historical artifact.

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                      Biographies

                      Despite her small oeuvre and brief literary career, Nella Larsen has been the subject of three biographies. All address two foundational problems in Larsen studies. The first is a devastating archival lack: most of the novelist’s personal papers (including unpublished works) were lost, and little besides correspondence with other well-known artists and writers remains. The second is Larsen’s exceptional life as a black woman writer. Her biracial immigrant origins, urban thematics, and sharp critiques of African American cultural nationalism complicate received histories of African American authorship, even though her works’ focus on color, marriage, and class place her squarely in the mainstream of black novelistic tradition. Both Larson 1993 and Davis 1994 are traditional biographical studies, linking life story to works in thematic and psychological terms. Each also resorts to speculation about Larsen’s circumstances and choices where the archive failed, and depicts the novelist as troubled in her relationship to mainstream African American culture. Hutchinson 2006, however, rejects these normalizing solutions to the archival and literary-historical problems of Larsen studies. Hutchinson’s work embeds the known facts of Larsen’s life in a broader account of the practical and discursive paradoxes inherent to supposedly absolute racial boundaries. He also documents previously unknown or unconfirmed aspects of Larsen’s life, particularly her childhood and teens. Two specialist articles, Lunde and Stenport 2008 on Danish artistic and political influences and Roffman 2010 on librarianship, round out the biographical literature. Van Vechten 2003 offers an immediate perspective on the novelist and her milieu. See also Bibliographies and Textual Scholarship for information on the “plagiarism” scandal attached to Larsen’s final publication, “Sanctuary.”

                      • Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

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                        Davis’s biography achieved wide readership in the academy and beyond, and it undoubtedly consolidated Larsen’s place in the canon. Several speculative contentions about Larsen’s early life, family background, and racial and ethnic identifications have been refuted in Hutchinson 2006.

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                        • Hutchinson, George. In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006.

                          DOI: 10.4159/9780674038929Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          Hutchinson’s authoritative volume articulates biographical facts with a historical survey of racial constructions across Larsen’s lifetime, rendering the novelist’s exceptional life itself as a tool for interrogating racial ideology. Particularly notable are discussions of her childhood and teens, travels in Denmark, experiences at Fisk and Tuskegee, and work as a nurse.

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                          • Larson, Charles R. Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer & Nella Larsen. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

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                            Charles Larson was unable to document many aspects of Larsen’s life; students are referred to Hutchinson 2006.

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                            • Lunde, Arne, and Anna Westerstahl Stenport. “Helga Crane’s Copenhagen: Denmark, Colonialism, and Transnational Identity in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.” Comparative Literature 60.3 (2008): 228–243.

                              DOI: 10.1215/-60-3-228Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                              This article discusses Larsen’s idiosyncratic descriptions of Copenhagen in Quicksand, and her deep investments in Danish modernism. It also gives much-needed detail on other early-20th-century black Danes, the geopolitical status of Denmark during Larsen’s lifetime, the history of Danish colonialism, and Danish involvement in the slave trade. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                              • Roffman, Karin. “Nella Larsen, Librarian at 135th Street.” In From the Modernist Annex: American Women Writers in Museums and Libraries. By Karin Roffman, 67–102. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.

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                                Roffman treats Larsen’s life as a librarian, explaining the 135th Street Branch’s role in post-Great Migration Harlem, the ambiguous social position of library workers in 1920s New York, and institutional racism in the New York Public Library. Particularly interesting is a comparative discussion of cataloguing procedure and racial classification.

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                                • Van Vechten, Carl. The Splendid Drunken Twenties: Selections from the Daybooks, 1922–1930. Edited by Bruce Kellner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

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                                  Van Vechten mentions Larsen, a close friend, forty times in these diary excerpts. He offers a vantage point on her social and artistic circles during the composition of Quicksand and Passing.

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                                  Criticism before 1990

                                  Larsen, whose two major works appeared in rapid succession just before the 1929 stock market crash, was identified at publication and for decades after with the “Harlem school” (or “Harlem Renaissance” in today’s most common usage), and her critical fortunes long shadowed those of the larger movement. Reviews and early academic studies generally prioritized Quicksand for its urban setting, middle-class values, and autobiographical main character and often emphasized Larsen’s formal elegance, intellectual depth, and refusal to countenance cultural nationalism. But once the “vogue” (Langston Hughes’s term) for black literature ended in the early 1930s, Larsen’s critical currency dwindled almost to nothing. From the late 1930s through the early 1970s, her work disappeared from popular consciousness and received few academic mentions. This neglect followed from the abrupt end of her authorial career (see Introduction and Biographies) but also reflected the marginality of African American literary scholarship before the late 1960s and early 1970s creation of black studies departments. These important historical and institutional contingencies can be obscured, however, by extant mid-20th-century criticism’s tendency (following Richard Wright’s famously harsh 1937 denunciation of most recent black literature) to aggressively marginalize Larsen, often in clearly misogynist terms, as politically naive and artistically sterile. Beginning in the early 1970s, however, feminist scholars of African American literature revived interest in Larsen. Their readings reflected a broader, black feminist program of opening up African Americanist scholarship to considerations of intraracial sexism; the politics of marriage, family, and reproduction; and the history of black feminist art and theory. This recovery led, after 1990, to an unprecedented explosion of work on Larsen’s two novels, and to their rapid integration with African American and US literary canons that had hitherto excluded them. Given Larsen’s small corpus, this article groups the secondary literature by date and theme, rather than by primary text. Pre-1990 Larsen criticism is here subdivided into Reception and Early Academic Criticism, 1928–1938 and From Minor Figure to Feminist Revival, 1939–1990. Post-1990 Larsen criticism is addressed in a separate section, Criticism after 1990, itself further divided by topic.

                                  Reception and Early Academic Criticism, 1928–1938

                                  Bassett 1992 offers the best means for surveying reviews, and for comparing Larsen’s reception to that of other Harlem Renaissance writers. Larsen was also discussed in some detail by her contemporary, the British writer and painter Wyndham Lewis; Lewis 1972 (first published in 1929) separates Larsen from other black novelists and emphasizes her artistic and intellectual refinement. Larsen also appears in several early academic studies of black literature. Brawley 1971 (first published in 1930), Ford 1968 (first published in 1936), and Brown 1969 (first published in 1937) each present Larsen as a central figure in an emerging literature, and all discuss her novels in terms of an opposition between decadence and progress. While both Brawley and Ford identify Larsen with progress and rationality, however, it was Brown’s condemnation of her works’ “bourgeois” settings and values—similar in spirit and terminology to Richard Wright’s rejection, also in 1937, of Harlem Renaissance literature as a whole—that determined critical discussion for nearly four decades to come. Mays 1968 (first published in 1938) also casts Larsen as a basically progressive figure, presenting Quicksand’s thoroughgoing atheism as a historical break in black literary tradition.

                                  • Bassett, John Earl. Harlem in Review: Critical Reactions to Black American Writers, 1917–1939. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1992.

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                                    This is the most comprehensive resource for contemporaneous reviews of Quicksand and Passing. Though reviews are not reproduced in full, excerpts encapsulating the reviewer’s judgment are included. Students can also readily compare Larsen’s reception to that of many black contemporaries.

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                                    • Brawley, Benjamin Griffith. The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States. New York: AMS, 1971.

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                                      In 1930, when this book was first published (New York: Duffield), Brawley was already condemning the Harlem Renaissance for artistic and political failure—though he blamed “that quality in the Negro—romanticism—which was at once his greatest gift and his greatest pitfall” (p. 117). He cites Larsen as a classical alternative to the decadence of Countée Cullen and others.

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                                      • Brown, Sterling Allen. “The Negro in American Fiction.” In Negro Poetry and Drama; and The Negro in American Fiction. By Sterling Allen Brown. Studies in American Negro Life. New York: Atheneum, 1969.

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                                        Brown’s 1937 literary history classifies both of Larsen’s novels, rather inaccurately, under the rubric “The Tragic Mulatto Passes for White.” He emphasizes her characters’ class privilege and generally condemns “The Harlem School” for hewing to white bourgeois norms. Such dismissals defined Larsen’s place in literary history for more than three decades.

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                                        • Ford, Nick Aaron. The Contemporary Negro Novel: A Study in Race Relations. College Park, MD: McGrath, 1968.

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                                          Ford’s 1936 study discusses Larsen as an explicator of the ambiguities of the color line and of middle-class ambivalence about black identity.

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                                          • Lewis, Wyndham. Paleface: The Philosophy of the “Melting-Pot.” New York: Gordon, 1972.

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                                            First published in 1929 (London: Chatto & Windus). In these ranting essays on race, racial representations, and racial ideology, Lewis condemns Harlem Renaissance–era black fiction at some length (pp. 27–46) as crudely propagandistic but explicitly excepts Larsen and Quicksand.

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                                            • Mays, Benjamin E. The Negro’s God, as Reflected in His Literature. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

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                                              Mays’s 1938 study (Boston: Chapman & Grimes), intended to counter stereotypes of blacks’ simple religiosity, includes a chapter on atheism and religious doubt in the work of modern “young Negroes,” which cites Quicksand as the fullest rejection of a “white man’s God” (p. 223).

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                                              From Minor Figure to Feminist Revival, 1939–1990

                                              After the mid-1930s, scholars firmly classified Larsen as a minor figure. The academic literature dwindled to occasional mentions in broader literary histories, with most authors dismissing her novels as aesthetic and political failures. See Thornton 1973 for a comprehensive discussion of this epoch in Larsen studies; Bone 1965 is paradigmatic. However, feminists renewed scholarly interest in Larsen during the 1970s, both championing the novels’ intellectual and artistic subtlety and proposing intraracial sexism as a worthy subject for African Americanist scholarship. Thornton 1973 prioritizes sexism over racism as the major political problem in Larsen’s works, while Youman 1974 and Berzon 1978 redirect readers to the then-lesser-known Passing. During the 1980s, black feminists discussed Larsen regularly as part of a broader tradition of black women’s writing; Christian 1980 is representative. Two essays, McDowell 1986 and Carby 1987, were particularly influential, each emphasizing Larsen’s pathbreaking representations of black women’s sexuality. McDowell framed both novels as stories of middle-class women’s sexual repression and read Passing as a story of black lesbian eros disguised and deferred by the discourse of racial passing. Carby discussed Helga Crane’s dissatisfying heterosexual relationships and claimed Quicksand as a materialist feminist critique of black women’s objectification under urban, industrial capitalism. Together, these two readings crystallized a central tenet of most subsequent Larsen studies: sexuality in her novels is a lens for examining complexity and contradiction in racial, class, and gender discourses (see Criticism after 1990).

                                              • Berzon, Judith R. Neither White nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction. Gotham Library. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

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                                                Berzon gives Larsen major status in her study and argues that the two novels’ unhappy endings dramatize “mulatto” characters’ inability to find an acceptable racial identity or to acknowledge kinship with the black working class and underclass.

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                                                • Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. Yale Publications in American Studies 3. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.

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                                                  Bone’s influential literary history dismisses Passing as poorly written and reads Quicksand as a psychologically acute novel about sexual repression damaged by its author’s supposed investment in middle-class prudery. Originally published in 1958; reprinted as recently as 1987.

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                                                  • Carby, Hazel V. “The Quicksands of Representation: Rethinking Black Cultural Politics.” In Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. By Hazel V. Carby, 163–175. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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                                                    Carby expounds Larsen as an urban novelist with a creative political imagination. She emphasizes the intrinsic feminist interest of Quicksand’s discussions of femininity, affect, objectification, class mobility, and the marriage market. Reprinted as recently as 1995.

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                                                    • Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies 52. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.

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                                                      Christian depicts Larsen as an astute critic of bourgeois marriage and bourgeois fictional tropes alike. She also strongly emphasizes the role of pregnancy in the character Helga Crane’s oppression, stating that “she is destroyed by her womb” (p. 53).

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                                                      • McDowell, Deborah E. “Introduction.” In Quicksand; and, Passing. Edited by Deborah E. McDowell, ix–xxxi. American Women Writers. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

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                                                        McDowell’s “Introduction,” emphasizing sexuality in both novels and describing lesbian sexual tension in Passing, continues to inspire current work on the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality in Larsen’s writing.

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                                                        • Thornton, Hortense E. “Sexism as Quagmire: Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.” College Language Association Journal 16 (1973): 285–301.

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                                                          This first explicitly feminist article on Quicksand systematically rebuts a long list of sexist academic readings, and also asserts that Larsen’s political concern is sexism, not racism.

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                                                          • Youman, Mary Mabel. “Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Study in Irony.” College Language Association Journal 18 (1974): 235–241.

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                                                            Youman inverts conventional dismissals of Larsen as white-identified, by demonstrating her ironic, satirical take on the bourgeois character Irene Redfield’s pretensions.

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                                                            Criticism after 1990

                                                            The resurgence of interest in Larsen after 1990 has few parallels in contemporary literary scholarship. Her work ceased to be the concern of specialists, becoming central to African American and US literary canons and enjoying wide currency beyond those fields. Quicksand and Passing are today acknowledged as major texts and are used to prosecute critical refinement and theoretical innovation as such. Some aspects of conventional literary scholarship were bypassed in this rush; no dedicated monograph nor even an edited volume of essays on Larsen has ever been published. Likewise, bibliographical resources remain scarce and textual scholarship is limited (see Bibliographies and Textual Scholarship), though the biographical literature is robust (see Biographies). In the place of a traditional, author-centered secondary literature, however, Larsen studies has been taken up by inquiry-based academic fields, preeminently women’s studies and African American studies, but also by queer studies, popular culture studies, and literary theory. This article therefore categorizes the post-1990 Larsen literature by critical focus, with sections on Class, Consumption, and Femininity, Black Family, Marriage, and Motherhood, the Harlem Renaissance, Psychoanalytic Theory, and Race and Racial Passing.

                                                            Class, Consumption, and Femininity

                                                            Pre-feminist Larsen criticism, responding to cultural nationalist and Marxist scholars and writers of the late 1930s, often took her interest in the codes of femininity, commodity culture, and the bourgeoisie as evidence of disengagement from black identity and racial politics. However, feminist and black feminist scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s made such dismissals untenable; see From Minor Figure to Feminist Revival, 1939–1990. After 1990, some critics mined Larsen’s detailed descriptions of material culture and social hierarchy to investigate the complex relationships among class identity, racial identity, gender, and sexuality in her fiction. This work focused on feminine and bourgeois practices of self-fashioning, arguing that some of Larsen’s most subtle and interesting points about labor, race, and discourse rely on her references to ephemeral things (such as clothes, cosmetics, parties, and gossip) that Western thought traditionally dismisses as frivolous and inconsequential. Brody 1992 spearheaded this critical literature with an argument focused on Passing’s glamorous Clare Kendry, whom earlier scholarship had tended to neglect in favor of the legibly-bourgeois focal character Irene Redfield. Subsequently, Lutes 2002, Balkun 2006, and Davis 2000 examined, respectively, references to cosmetics, clothing, and the commodification of women’s bodies broadly construed in Larsen’s work. Modern commodity culture and the advertising industry first took shape around the time of the novels’ publication, and these transformations of everyday life mold characters’ racial identifications and political consciousness in important ways. Mass-mediated scandal was also important; Thaggert 2010 examines the “Rhinelander Case,” a lawsuit focused on an allegation of racial passing that received wide media coverage, and that clearly shaped some elements of Passing. Finally, Caughie 2013 offers a nuanced discussion of class politics among African Americans after the Great Migration, and develops a reading of Passing as a critique of the black bourgeoisie’s self-consolidation around aesthetic categories.

                                                            • Balkun, Mary McAleer. “Dressing to Kill: Desire, Race, and Authenticity in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” In The American Counterfeit: Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture. By Mary McAleer Balkun, 97–124. Studies in American Literary Realism and Naturalism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

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                                                              Balkun discusses fashion in Passing, emphasizing the interpenetration of racial discourse and commodity culture. Women characters check their clothes and makeup as a means of checking their racial performances, and their hidden motives and desires are always coded as pieces of clothing.

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                                                              • Brody, Jennifer DeVere. “Clare Kendry’s ‘True’ Colors: Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” Callaloo: A Journal of African American and African Arts and Letters 15.4 (1992): 1053–1065.

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                                                                Brody discusses the novel’s intense and careful description of class ideologies, class conflict, and the inter-implication of African American class distinctions with black women’s sexuality. She also shifts analysis of black identity away from the focal character, “race-woman” Irene Redfield, and on to the mysterious blonde border crosser, Clare Kendry. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                • Caughie, Pamela L. “‘The Best People’: The Making of the Black Bourgeoisie in Writings of the Negro Renaissance.” Modernism/Modernity 20.3 (2013): 519–537.

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                                                                  Caughie’s article discusses Passing as a critique of the role of art and aesthetic categories in creating and sustaining a black bourgeoisie after the Great Migration. The identification of black literary production with the black middle class continues, she argues, to limit critical scholarship on black modernism today.

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                                                                  • Davis, Simone Weil. “‘Lending an Air of Importance’: Vehicles at Work.” In Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s. By Simone Weil Davis, 105–141. New Americanists. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

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                                                                    This useful though jargon-heavy article discusses Quicksand as a black feminist critique of the “self-commodification” practices capitalist culture demands of middle- to upper-class women. Particularly valuable are comparisons of Larsen’s work to fiction by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and to that couple’s public personae.

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                                                                    • Lutes, Jean Marie. “Making Up Race: Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and the African American Cosmetics Industry.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 58.1 (2002): 77–108.

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                                                                      Lutes argues that beauty practices constitute a major mode of self-definition in work by Larsen and Jessie Fauset, as well as a mode of anti-essentialist racial critique. She also compares white and black women’s beauty cultures and discusses the role of cosmetics in shaping the image of a “New Negro.”

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                                                                      • Thaggert, Miriam. “Reading the Body: Fashion, Etiquette, and Narrative in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” In Images of Black Modernism: Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance. By Miriam Thaggert, 65–87. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.

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                                                                        Thaggert highlights contingent and shifting class, racial, and sexual codes during the 1920s, reading Passing in terms of characters’ (sometimes desperate) efforts to manage their status and reputation. Her discussion of the “Rhinelander Case,” a sensational 1925 trial focused on a putative incident of racial passing, is particularly notable.

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                                                                        The Harlem Renaissance

                                                                        Larsen was personally and professionally involved with ongoing debates about the subjects, purposes, political conditions, and marketability of African American art during the late 1920s. Her career strongly reflected the specific circumstances of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly a relatively negotiable color line, broad access to black performances in music and drama, and an intense, high- and mass-cultural market for sexualized representations of blackness. Two studies discuss Larsen in terms of black popular music during the 1920s: Vogel 2009 carefully contextualizes Quicksand and its famous cabaret scene in the material and social cultures of actual Harlem cabarets, and Harrison-Kahan 2009 identifies the novels’ structures with black vernacular musical forms. Several scholars discuss Larsen’s complex engagements with racial primitivism, a modern, mass-mediated discourse that made black literature saleable to white audiences but also reinforced paternalist and hierarchical racisms. Bernard 2005 uses Passing to underline the strange inversions and ad-hoc negotiations that characterized the era’s social and professional interracialism. Rhodes 1998 explains the grammar and politics of the primitive in detail, and Brown 2009 theorizes its relationship to advertising and mass culture, while Sherrard-Johnson 2007 focuses on visual rhetoric in mass- and high-cultural depictions of light-skinned black women. (On the commodity character of racial discourse, see also Class, Consumption, and Femininity.) Closely related to primitivism was the idea of a black “folk,” defined as rural, Southern, and illiterate; Favor 1999 discusses Larsen’s (largely sardonic) engagement with “folk” versions of black authenticity. Finally, moving from social fantasies to social facts, Esteve 2003 investigates the novelist’s tentative engagement with black crowds and black political potential in Harlem.

                                                                        • Bernard, Emily. “Unlike Many Others: Exceptional White Characters in Harlem Renaissance Fiction.” Modernism/Modernity 12.3 (2005): 407–423.

                                                                          DOI: 10.1353/mod.2005.0072Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                          Bernard’s essay reverses Toni Morrison’s emphasis, in Playing in the Dark, on black characters that serve white authors’ thematic and moral programs, to argue that “exceptional” white minor characters in Harlem Renaissance fiction, including Larsen’s Passing, mediate important relationships among black major characters. Available online by subscription.

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                                                                          • Brown, Judith. “Primitivism: Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, Josephine Baker.” In Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form. By Judith Brown, 121–144. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

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                                                                            Brown expounds “glamour,” an advertising term for the aesthetic intensities of industrial society, as a key term for cultural criticism about the 1920s and 1930s. Her reading of Quicksand discusses primitivism as a form of glamour, motivating references to death and abjection as fantastic pleasure and display.

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                                                                            • Esteve, Mary. “A ‘Moving Mosaic’: Harlem, Primitivism, and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.” In The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature. By Mary Esteve, 152–171. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture 135. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511485497.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              Esteve argues that Larsen depicts Helga Crane adrift amid Harlem crowds, to assert that black racial identification exceeds rational political utility. However the novelist herself, remaining aloof from her character, evinces commitment to “the abiding virtues of political-liberal ideas and practices” (p. 171).

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                                                                              • Favor, J. Martin. “A Clash of Birthrights: Nella Larsen, the Feminine, and African American Identity.” In Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance. By J. Martin Favor, 81–110. New Americanists. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

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                                                                                Favor argues that Quicksand rejects the neo-romantic equation of blackness to femininity, in order to analyze gender construction as an integral feature of black identity and intraracial class stratification.

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                                                                                • Harrison-Kahan, Lori. “‘Structure Would Equal Meaning’: Blues and Jazz Aesthetics in the Fiction of Nella Larsen.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 28.2 (2009): 267–289.

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                                                                                  Harrison-Kahan argues that Larsen’s novels share formal principles with black musical forms: Passing’s twelve-part structure mimics the twelve-bar blues, while Quicksand’s improvisatory narrative echoes jazz performance. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                  • Rhodes, Chip. “Primitive Desires and the Desire for the Primitive: DuBose Heyward and Nella Larsen.” In Structures of the Jazz Age: Mass Culture, Progressive Education, and Racial Discourse in American Modernism. By Chip Rhodes, 170–196. Haymarket. London and New York: Verso, 1998.

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                                                                                    Rhodes introduces readers to the 1920s “received, recognizable symbology” (p. 172) of blackness. He describes Quicksand both as a critical interrogation of primitivist ideology, and as a demonstration of the lack of viable alternatives for racial representation in a time of political reaction.

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                                                                                    • Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. “‘A Plea for Color’: Nella Larsen’s Textual Tableaux.” In Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. By Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, 21–48. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

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                                                                                      Sherrard-Johnson stresses Larsen’s engagements with visuality and mass media and pursues formal analogies between Quicksand and a range of 19th- and 20th-century iconic portraits of light-skinned black women.

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                                                                                      • Vogel, Shane. “The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: 1926 and After.” In The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance. By Shane Vogel, 74–103. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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                                                                                        Vogel places Quicksand’s brief cabaret scene in broader sociocultural and literary contexts and significantly complicates traditional accounts of the novelist as exponent of bourgeois propriety.

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                                                                                        Black Family, Marriage, and Motherhood

                                                                                        From the earliest days of Larsen’s recovery by feminist scholars of African American literature, academic readers have noted the harshly ironic treatment of black family, marriage, and motherhood in her works (see From Minor Figure to Feminist Revival, 1939–1990). Criticism on these subjects usually prioritizes the novels’ representations of sexual and reproductive bodies, and uses Larsen as a basis for a black feminist theory of the African American novel. DuCille 1993 casts Larsen as pivotal figure in a broader, black women’s literary tradition, and Chapman 2012 pursues a similar concept of black women’s discourse. English 2004 and Craig 2013 link Larsen’s work to contemporaneous feminist activism for birth control and against lynching. The most ambitious discussions of marriage and family in Larsen’s work are Jenkins 2007 and Hutchinson 2007. Jenkins uses Larsen to develop a general theory of the black novel as a disciplinary technique that suppresses black women’s capacity for intimacy, while Hutchinson rigorously excepts Larsen from black vernacular culture, as such, and argues that her works reject “family” as a trope for national belonging and psychological health. Macharia 2011 discusses Larsen as herself a queer figure, and as a writer of queer characters that cannot be reconciled with conventional models of heterosexuality, family, or nation. See also Psychoanalytic Theory for discussions of fantasized and unconscious familial investments in Larsen’s work.

                                                                                        • Chapman, Erin D. “Good Women: Race, Motherhood, Sexuality, Self-Determination, and the Nature of Oppression in the Words of New Negro Women.” In Prove It on Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s. By Erin D. Chapman, 114–151. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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                                                                                          Chapman discusses Larsen as participant in a larger, semi-private “New Negro women’s discourse” (p. 116) shaped by black women’s experiences of migration, urban culture, patriarchal family structure, and masculinist ideologies of racial uplift.

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                                                                                          • Craig, Layne Parish. “‘That Means Children to Me’: The Birth Control Review in Harlem.” In When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars. By Layne Parish Craig, 76–98. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.

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                                                                                            Craig connects Quicksand’s references to childbearing, childlessness, and black uplift to a wide-ranging and informative discussion of birth control politics in 1920s black Harlem. She outlines historical connections between Larsen and Margaret Sanger and identifies Sangerian rhetoric in Larsen’s depiction of pregnancy.

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                                                                                            • DuCille, Ann. “The Bourgeois, Wedding Bell Blues of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen.” In The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction. By Ann DuCille, 86–109. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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                                                                                              DuCille identifies Larsen, along with Jessie Fauset, as a turning point in the African American marriage-plot novel, away from neoconservative and patriarchalist ideals and toward recognition of institutional misogyny and social change.

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                                                                                              • English, Daylanne K. “Blessed Are the Barren: Lynching, Reproduction, and the Drama of New Negro Womanhood, 1916–1930.” In Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. By Daylanne K. English, 117–140. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

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                                                                                                English includes Quicksand in a broader discussion of the rhetorical and practical links between antilynching activism and birth control advocacy among black women.

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                                                                                                • Hutchinson, George. “An End to the Family Romance: Nella Larsen, Black Transnationalism, and American Racial Ideology.” In Race, Nation, & Empire in American History. Edited by James T. Campbell, Matthew Pratt Guterl, and Robert G. Lee, 55–72. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

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                                                                                                  Hutchinson argues that Larsen’s fictional techniques and feminist consciousness have little or no basis in African American vernacular culture but instead represent the novelist’s own careful self-education. Furthermore, he asserts that such willed self-invention enabled Larsen to reject “family” as a trope for black national belonging and psychological health.

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                                                                                                  • Jenkins, Candice M. Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

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                                                                                                    Jenkins’s study uses Passing to develop the concept of a “salvific wish,” a middle-class black women’s fantasy of protecting black families by suppressing their own stigmatized sexuality. She argues that an apparent preoccupation with respectability actually marks the extreme vulnerability of African American emotional life to racist calumny.

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                                                                                                    • Macharia, Keguro. “Queering Helga Crane: Black Nativism in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 57.2 (2011): 254–275.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2011.0042Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      Macharia identifies Quicksand’s heroine Helga Crane, and Larsen as well, as queered, incoherent subjects within discourses of African American identity that increasingly relied on regionalist, nativist, and heteronormative presuppositions during the novelist’s lifetime. Available online by subscription.

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                                                                                                      Psychoanalytic Theory

                                                                                                      The most unexpected area of recent Larsen scholarship, yet also the most well-known outside African American and US literary fields, is a large body of psychoanalytic criticism that uses representations of desire and repression in Larsen’s work to develop a theoretical account of the relationships between sexual difference and racial difference in psychic life. Much of this literature, particularly its expressly Lacanian constituents, follows from one highly influential essay, Butler 1993. Though taking little account of black literary history, Butler named Passing as a theoretical text, capable of reforming psychoanalytic ignorance of racial difference. Ngai 2005, Toth 2008, and Tate 1998 followed Butler in discussing the novels’ intense investments in perversity and trauma. All also argue more broadly for the value of psychoanalytic approaches to representations of race, racism, and racial politics. Carr 2004 makes a strong critique of Butler but does so almost entirely within the terms of psychoanalytic theory. As Ahad 2010 details, Larsen herself was certainly familiar with the broad outlines of Freudian theory and likely followed current psychoanalytic debates in some detail. Stringer 2010 also investigates Larsen’s engagements with psychoanalytic theory, particularly concepts of trauma, narcissism, and fetishism.

                                                                                                      • Ahad, Badia Sahar. “The Anxiety of Birth in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.” In Freud Upside Down: African American Literature and Psychoanalytic Culture. By Badia Sahar Ahad, 39–59. New Black Studies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

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                                                                                                        Ahad gives historical specificity to psychoanalytic readings of Larsen, by highlighting the novelist’s knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. The essay investigates parallels between Otto Rank’s symptomology of “birth trauma” and Quicksand protagonist Helga Crane’s peripatetic ambivalence.

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                                                                                                        • Butler, Judith. “Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge.” In Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” By Judith Butler, 167–186. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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                                                                                                          Butler’s influential chapter locates an important psychoanalytic innovation in Passing’s description of racial difference as co-present and coeval with sexual difference. However, Butler also seems unaware of the central role of phenotypic ambiguity in the African American novel since Clotel (1857), and she neglects Larsen’s 1920s context almost entirely.

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                                                                                                          • Carr, Brian. “Paranoid Interpretation, Desire’s Nonobject, and Nella Larsen’s Passing.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 119.2 (2004): 282–295.

                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1632/003081204X22729Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                            Carr draws on Eve Sedgwick and Jacques Lacan to diagnose Butler 1993 and other, psychoanalytically indebted readings of Passing as “paranoid”—that is, problematically over-committed to hermeneutic plenitude. Despite decrying reductionism, however, his article lacks substantial engagement with African American literary scholarship and black literary canons. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                            • Ngai, Sianne. “Irritation.” In Ugly Feelings. By Sianne Ngai, 174–208. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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                                                                                                              Ngai’s essay on Quicksand discusses relationships among emotion, racial identification, literary form, and the cultural project of the Harlem Renaissance. Her treatment of free indirect discourse is invaluable, and her debunking, on purely textual grounds, of various vulgar-Freudian critical commonplaces is satisfying.

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                                                                                                              • Stringer, Dorothy. “Not Even Past”: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.

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                                                                                                                Stringer discusses Larsen’s references to racial violence and historical trauma in two chapters. She focuses on two key psychoanalytic concepts, narcissism and fetishism, and emphasizes the novels’ implicit critique of psychoanalysis’s default whiteness and tendency to defer considerations of women’s sexuality as labor.

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                                                                                                                • Tate, Claudia. “Desire and Death: Seducing the Lost Father in Quicksand, by Nella Larsen.” In Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race. By Claudia Tate, 119–147. Race and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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                                                                                                                  Part of a volume expounding the value of psychoanalytic criticism for African American literary criticism, Tate’s essay draws on an eclectic group of psychoanalytic theorists to posit a masochistic desire for punishment and suffering in Quicksand’s Helga Crane.

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                                                                                                                  • Toth, Josh. “Deauthenticating Community: The Passing Intrusion of Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” In Special Issue: Race, Space, and “National” Boundaries. MELUS 33.1 (2008): 55–73.

                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1093/melus/33.1.55Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                    Relying on work by Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Lacan, Toth reads Clare Kendry, not merely as subversive of conventional social norms but also as revelatory of the illusory character of social orders supposed essentially to reside in their members themselves. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                                    Race and Racial Passing

                                                                                                                    The thematics of ambiguous phenotype are as old as the African American novel itself, yet the Oxford English Dictionary cites Larsen’s Passing as the first published use of “to pass” to mean deliberate racial masquerade. Racial discourse in Larsen’s work is indeed historically specific and historically novel; though pre-1990 Larsen criticism tended to associate her works with a transhistorical stereotype of the “tragic mulatta” (see From Minor Figure to Feminist Revival, 1939–1990), her novels clearly engage contemporaneous, mass-media tropes precisely in order to rework them. McLendon 1995 established colorism and phenotypic variation as political concerns in Larsen’s writing and the Harlem Renaissance generally. Rottenberg 2003 uses Passing to distinguish between racial and gendered subjective interpellations. Blackmer 1995 reads the practice of passing in terms of Jim Crow’s legalization, identifying the apparently personal motives of Larsen’s characters with the state’s regime of racialization. Both Reddy 2011 and Zackodnik 2004 discuss racial ambiguity as a vehicle for political imagination in Larsen’s work. Nunes 2002 identifies an important international dimension to Passing’s discussion of intraracial distinctions. Finally, Walker 2016 fundamentally challenges the identification, common across black feminist and nonfeminist readings, of Larsen’s work with a critique of the black family, instead arguing that both Quicksand and Passing employ figures of frustration and incompletion in order to develop an account of biraciality, as distinct from African American identity.

                                                                                                                    • Blackmer, Corinne E. “The Veils of the Law: Race and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” In Special Issue: Race and Politics: The Experience of African-American Literature. College Literature 22.3 (1995): 50–67.

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                                                                                                                      Blackmer reads Passing in terms of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court decision endorsing segregation, arguing that Larsen’s characters have internalized the racial silences and sexual paranoia that the “separate but equal” doctrine institutionalized. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                                      • McLendon, Jacquelyn Y. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

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                                                                                                                        This early study emphasizes Larsen’s critical engagement with racial and sexual stereotypes and her resistance to market demands for exoticism in portrayals of light-skinned or biracial black women.

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                                                                                                                        • Nunes, Zita C. “Phantasmatic Brazil: Nella Larsen’s Passing, American Literary Imagination, and Racial Utopianism.” In Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues. Edited by Monika Kaup and Debra J. Rosenthal, 50–61. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

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                                                                                                                          Nunes discusses Passing’s references to US economic exploitation of South American countries, and to African American political fantasies of racial equality in Latin America. She also identifies Clare Kendry’s nickname, “Nig,” with the Brazilian Portuguese endearment “minha negra.”

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                                                                                                                          • Reddy, Chandan. “Legal Freedom as Violence in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand: Black Literary Publics during the Interwar Years.” In Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the US State. By Chandan Reddy, 90–133. Perverse Modernities. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

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                                                                                                                            Reddy argues that Quicksand both mimics and critiques novel forms of governmentality, particularly the raced and sexual regulation of US citizenship and US global power during the 1910s and 1920s. The piece is marred, however, by a tendency to substitute critical formalism for verifiable data on Larsen’s intellectual life.

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                                                                                                                            • Rottenberg, Catherine. “Passing: Race, Identification, and Desire.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 45.4 (2003): 435–452.

                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1353/crt.2004.0025Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                              Rottenberg presents Passing in terms of a rigorous distinction between racial performance and gender performance. Whereas subjects interpellated as women want to be women, she argues, there is no question of a subject ever desiring to be black. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                                              • Walker, Rafael. “Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the US 41.1 (2016): 165–192.

                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlv083Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                Walker identifies Larsen’s heroines Helga Crane and Clare Kendry as biracial, as opposed to black or African American, and emphasizes Larsen’s critique of US racial regimes. Though reflecting a trend in the field toward precision in specifying social identities, Walker’s work does not significantly address the black-centered character of both novels.

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                                                                                                                                • Zackodnik, Teresa C. The Mulatta and the Politics of Race. Black Women Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

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                                                                                                                                  Discussing Larsen in two separate chapters, Zackodnik contests the identification of “mulatta” figures and “passing” plots with individualism and political quietism, arguing instead that these tropes intervened on established concepts of race and racial difference at a time of political uncertainty.

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