Table of Contents
Carl Van Vechten
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Mae G. Henderson
Like other novels of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen's
(1929) has been read in terms of African American modernism, a term linking the aesthetic and political dimensions of this outpouring of work by black artists in the 1920s, and designating literary techniques ranging from the experimentalism of Jean Toomer to the realism of Rudolph Fisher to the romantic racialism of Claude McKay. In
as in other novels of the Harlem School, the cityâ particularly Harlemâfunctions as a kind of topos that becomes a site of transformation and, potentially, liberation in that decade of black cultural and social awakening.
Although the opening scene of what Larsen calls the “Encounter” between her two main characters occurs in their native Chicago, the main action and denouement of the novel transpires in New York, the mecca of the “New Negro” and locus of the “New Woman.” The geographical location of Larsen's characters in Chicago and New York codes the “city” as both a space of ethnic and social diversity in the aftermath of the Great Migration, as well as a space newly open to the “feminine” during an era when women were moving from the domestic sphere into the public culture. Larsen's self-conscious engagement with an urban culture of modernity from which her characters derive their location of social marginalityâas blacks and womenâis particularly pertinent to the narrative theme of racial passing, since, as critic Werner Sollors aptly notes, a primary condition of passing in the United States has been “social and geographical mobility,” especially as it prevails “in environments such as cities . . . that provided anonymity to individuals, permitting them to resort to imaginative role-playing in their self-representation.”
Situated during an era of profound cultural change and social transition, Larsen's modern passing characters distinctly “belong to [their] own time,” in that these “raced” and “gendered” subjects inhabit a social geography that both affirms and contests social, economic, and political arrangements that sustain the “color line” demarcating race and the “separate spheres” defining gender.
As one of several (albeit only two women) novelists of the period, Larsen is distinctive in that her novels, unlike those of Renaissance writers such as Jessie Fauset, Walter White, Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher, and Wallace Thurman, not only engage the racial thematics of African American modernism but also deploy the formal techniques of Anglo-American and European modernism. Larsen's modernist articulations, mediated from the perspectives of race, gender, and sexuality, are demonstrated by what Rita Felski defines in
The Gender of Modernity
as “aesthetic self-consciousness, stylistic fragmentation, and . . . questioning of representation” within the context of “a distinctively modern sense of dislocation and ambiguity.”
In addition, Larsen's figuration of the African American woman as a racially marked, middle-class, gendered subject in both her first novel, Quicksand (1928), and her second, Passing, privilege the mulatto, or biracial, woman in particular as the site of contradiction and negotiation, transgression and conformity, tradition and modernity. In some respects, the complexity of this image, as we shall see, marks this figure as a signifierâa duplicitous signifierâof the competing impulses, ideologies, and aesthetics characterizing the Harlem Renaissance itself.
But Larsen's latter novel also belongs to a genre, the passing narrative, that some critics maintain has become defunct. Surely it is true, as some have argued, that “passing,” in the sense of “passing for white,” has ceased to be the social issue that it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
yet the recent republication of Larsen's novel, along with James Weldon Johnson's
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored
Man, would suggest that perhaps W.E.B. Du Bois was not entirely accurate in his prediction that the “intriguing and ticklish subject” of passing “is all a pretty, silly matter of no real importance which another generation will comprehend with great difficulty.”
And while, as Gayle Wald has documented, the postwar 1950s witnessed the emergence of what she describes as the “postpassing” narrative in black popular fiction, it is demonstrably evident that this genre has discovered a receptive audience during the latter part of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Much of the renewed interest in this genre is, of course, due to the emergence of an increased interest in what Werner Sollors has defined as a tradition of “interracial literature” as well as in a more general preoccupation with notions of hybridity, biraciality, and social constructionism as they structure contemporary conceptions of personal and social identity.
has traditionally received the higher critical regard, it would seem that in light of recent attention, a reevaluation of
is due. Arguing that Larsen's craft and subtlety demand an acknowledgment of the status of
as a major novel of the Harlem Renaissance, contemporary critics have insisted on according Larsen's novel its “rightful place” in the canons of American, African American, and women's literature.
Historically, however, Larsen's reputation rests less on
than on her first novel,
In a contemporary review of Quicksand in The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois pronounced it a “fine, thoughtful and courageous piece of work,” the best that “Negro America has produced since the heyday of Charles Chesnutt.”
And although Du Bois praised Larsen's second novel as “one of the finest novels of the year,”
has not always fared so well among later critics and scholars.
as “probably the best treatment of the subject [of passing] in Negro fiction,” critic Robert Bone considers it Larsen's “less important novel.”
Comparing it to the typical “women's magazine story,” Hoyt Fuller describes
as a “flawed” and “rather banal” novel.”
Hiroko Sato describes Passing as a “slight book,” written by a novelist who wrote “only one good book [Quicksand].”
Nathan Irvin Huggins ranks
as Larsen's “best novel,” and Passing her “lesser novel.”
David Levering Lewis views
as “one of the . . . best novels of the Renaissance,”
and George Hutchinson regards it as “the best novel of the Harlem Renaissance until Zora Neale Hurston's
Their Eyes Were Watching
Cheryl Wall comments on the “inevitable melodrama,” that “weakens the credibility” of Larsen's second novel.”
And one of Larsen's biographers, Charles Larson, suggests that “
is a lesser novel than
” while another biographer, Thadious Davis, considers it “less skillfully developed,” although “more carefully structured” than her first novel.
Despite these evaluations,
has established itself during the last two decades or so as a major work of the Harlem Renaissance as well as an important contribution to the genre known as the “modernist passing narrative.” What is less well known is that the novel also belongs to a literary pedigree that links the narrative of passing to an originary form of African American literature. Genealogically, the narrative of passing traces its lineage back to the nineteenth-century African American slave narrative. Elements of the passing narrative can be found in several of the slave narratives, including
Thousand Miles for Freedom; or the Escape of William and
Ellen Craft from Slavery
(1860), in which two slaves successfully escape from bondage by having the light-skinned Ellen “pass” for the “white” (and male) master of her dark-skinned slave husband, William. Not only does “the passing plot”
appear in the narratives of the fugitive slave who sometimes deployed racial passing as a strategy by which to escape the fetters of slavery, it also resurfaces as a plot element in nineteenth-century African American fiction, including ex-slave author William Wells Brown's
Tale of the Southern States (1864)
; Frank J. Webb's The
Garies and Their Friends
(1857); Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's
(1892); as well as Hannah Craft's recently “discovered”
The Bondwoman's Narrative
(c. 1853â60), now deemed to be the earliest novel by a black woman in the United States.
The Slave; or, Memoirs of Archy Moore
(1836) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin
(1852), both Anglo-American novels modeled on the narratives of ex-slaves, also deploy the passing plot.
The recurrence of the passing plot in both black and white fiction in the United States would suggest the importance of passing as a social issue from the late nineteenth well into the twentieth century. Indeed, two years following the publication of Larsen's novel, one Caleb Johnson wrote in the
that “crossing the color line is so common an occurrence that the Negroes have their own well-understood word for it. They call it âpassing.' ”
The Saturday Review of Literature
in 1947, Walter White, himself a “voluntary Negro,” observed, “Every year approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappearâpeople whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration . . . men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them.”
Clearly, White's statistics regarding the occurrence and extent of race passing in the United States must be viewed as highly speculative, since evidence supporting such claims, by its very nature, remains scant and anecdotal due to the conditions of secrecy upon which the success of the racial passer is predicated.
Further commenting on the theme of passing in the literature of black and white Americans, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal also notes the conditions of secrecy and silence that alone guarantee the success of the racial passer, whom he identifies, broadly speaking, as “a Negro [who] becomes a white man . . . [who] moves from the lower to the higher caste.” Passing can be secured, explains Myrdal, “only by the deception of the white people with whom the passer comes to associate and by a conspiracy of silence on the part of other Negroes who might know about it.” Myrdal describes the typical passing plot and its reception:
As a social phenomenon, passing is so deeply connected with the psychological complexesâbuilt around caste and sexâof both groups that it has come to be a central theme of fiction and of popular imagination and story telling. The adventures of the lonesome passer, who extinguishes his entire earlier life, breaks all personal and social anchorings, and starts a new life where he has to fear his own shadow, are alluring to all and have an especially frightening import to whites. There is a general sentimentality for the unhappy mulattoâthe “marginal man” with split allegiances and frustrations in both directions which is especially applied to the mulatto who passes.
Although like Myrdal, African American critic Sterling Brown emphasizes the “unhappiness” or “wretchedness” of the passing subject, Brown further distinguishes between black- and white-authored treatments of the passing subject during the Harlem Renaissance:
We have seen that the mulatto who “passes” has been a victim of opposing interpretations. Negro novelists urge his unhappiness, until he is summoned back to his people by the spirituals, or their full-throated laughter, or their simple ways. . . . White novelists insist upon the mulatto's unhappiness for other reasons. To them he is the anguished victim of a divided inheritance. Mathematically they work it out that his intellectual strivings and self-control come from his white blood, and his emotional urgings, indolence and potential savagery come from his Negro blood. Their favorite character, the octoroon, wretched because of the “single drop of midnight in her veins,” desires a white lover above all else, and must therefore go down to a tragic end.
Both Myrdal and Brown emphasize the psychic alienation and social dislocation inhabited by the literary passing subject who is compelled to maintain a position of “disidentification”
relative to both the dominant oppressive culture and the dominated oppressed culture. And despite arguments to the contrary, Brown's distinction between popular black- and white-authored representations of the mixed-race subject would seem to be not entirely without justification, especially as it informs the conventional physical, moral, and intellectual ascriptions attached to race in nineteenth-century American literature.
Notably, the popularity of the passing genre before and after the 1920s is attested not only in African American fiction such as Charles W. Chesnutt's
The House Behind the Cedars
(1900) and his recently recovered Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (c. 1920), James Weldon Johnson's
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
(1912; 1927), Walter White's
(1926), Jessie Fauset's
(1928), George Schuyler's
More (1931), and Nella Larsen's Passing, but also by Anglo-American fiction such as Rebecca Harding Davis's
Waiting for the Verdict
(1867), William Dean Howells's
An Imperative Duty
(1892), and Mark Twain's
(1894). Elements of the passing plot also appear in Harriet Beecher Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin
(1852) and William Faulkner's
(1936). Later treatments of the passing plot range from Fannie Hurst's popular
Imitation of Life
(1933; made into a movie in 1959) to Danzy Senna's more recent
(1998) along with Philip Roth's
The Human Stain