Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Lack Somewhere

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In his 1899 short story “The Wife of His Youth,” Charles Chesnutt tells the tale of the pretentious and conservative Mr. Ryder, a Southerner and man of mixed ancestry who runs a club known colloquially as ‘The Blue Vein Society,’ a relatively exclusive association patronized by up-and-coming members of the fictional town of Groveland who are ‘more white than black,’ that is, ‘white enough to show blue veins.’ “I have no race prejudice,” he is proud to declare, “but we people of mixed blood are the ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black.” They are words that might very well have been spoken by the fearless, brilliant, if now sadly little-read author, Nella Larsen. Indeed there is perhaps no American writer who was more haunted by and preoccupied with the punishing existential stigma of mixed-race ancestry than Larsen. Born to a white Danish mother and a black Danish West-Indian father who, as a couple, chose to cross the color line, Nella, “a visibly brown child,” writes Thadious M. Davis in his introduction to Larsen’s novel, Passing, “was raised as the lone ‘colored’ person in a family that had refashioned itself, consciously changed its name, erased its racial past, and, with the disappearance of that past, obscured familial ties to the dark child in its midst.” For this Larsen suffered all her life, inspiring in her (just as in her protagonist, Helga Crane) a desperate, often angry iconoclasm that kept her shuttling restlessly between one people and another, always searching, never satisfied, rarely if ever happy in her skin:

Helga Crane couldn’t, she told herself and others, live in America. In spite of its glamour, existence in America, even in Harlem, was for Negroes too cramped, too uncertain, too cruel; something not to be endured for a lifetime if one could escape; something demanding a courage greater than was in her. No. She couldn’t stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back.

Such, in broad strokes, is the story of Helga Crane in this grim, uncompromising, if highly readable and deeply worthwhile first novel. The title alone, Quicksand, is nearly sufficient to describe the painful daily crisis of so many African Americans in the 1920’s who suffered the triple curse of miscegenation (whether forced or consensual)—alienation from both the greater black and white communities, as well as from themselves. The ubiquitous and insidious racism that Larsen describes in the story of Helga Crane, in her life in the South, in Harlem, and in Copenhagen, to where, briefly, she flees, must eventually penetrate even the toughest of skins, as it does in time with hers, manifesting itself first as chronic dissatisfaction, self-censorship, insecurity, denial, and self-reproach, coupled at points with a bitter arrogance, then finally—if not inevitably—as bitterness itself, as apathy, submission, and self-loathing. Tragically, and for all of the evidence to the contrary, Helga’s problem seems to her, by the end of the novel, to stem less from the cruel and inhuman strictures of America at large as from a personal failing or flaw in her nature, from a lack within. To say, as a host of critics once did, that such an ending is overly pessimistic, is almost obscenely ridiculous—as if the pain Larsen describes was contrived for narrative effect alone, as if the novel itself has no greater function than to please us as readers. Larsen didn’t write to be clever, to exercise her imagination, to be creative; she wrote to tell the truth and, by telling the truth, to dignify her own life in all its pain and complexity. One has only to think of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, of the virulent, widespread, and blatantly systematic racism that still thrives in the U.S. today, to appreciate just how astute and courageous she was. 

Quicksand, while available in a number of different editions, has recently been republished as part of a beautiful collection of short novels called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1920’s. Edited by Rafia Zafar, the collection includes work by such African American greats Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Wallace Thurman. There is also a companion volume called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1930’s. Do yourself a favor and buy them both. They are beautiful books.

Nella Larsen, one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the Harlem renaissance, was born Nellie Walker on April 13, 1891, in Chicago. She began publishing stories in the mid-1920’a and published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. Passing came out the following year.

Peter Adam Nash

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