Sunday, June 17, 2012

Nella Larsen--Quicksand (1928)

Larsen’s first novel, this largely autobiographical novel was well-received by critics.  To a certain extent, it can be considered to fall under the rubric of naturalism, though it also is considered an exemplar of modernism as well as a racial uplift novel.  In the novel, Helga Crane is the lovely and refined mixed-race daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian black father. He abandoned her mother and Helga soon after the girl was born. Unable to feel comfortable with her European-American relatives, Crane lives in various places in the United States and visits Denmark, searching for people among whom she feels at home.
In her travels she encounters many of the communities which Larsen knew. For example, Crane teaches at Naxos, a Southern Negro boarding school (based on Tuskegee University), where she becomes dissatisfied with its philosophy. She criticizes a sermon by a white preacher, who advocates the segregation of blacks into separate schools, and says their striving for social equality would lead blacks to become avaricious. Crane quits teaching and moves to Chicago. Her white maternal uncle, now married to a bigoted woman, shuns her. Crane moves to Harlem, New York, where she finds a refined but often hypocritical black middle class obsessed with the "race problem."
Taking her uncle's legacy, Crane visits her maternal aunt in Copenhagen, where she is treated as a highly desirable racial exotic (as with many racial uplift narratives, a trip to Europe allows the protagonist a different way to experience her racial identity).  Missing black people, she returns to New York City. Experiencing a near mental breakdown, Crane happens onto a store-front revival and a charismatic religious experience. After marrying the preacher who converts her, she moves with him to the rural Deep South. There she is disillusioned by the people's adherence to religion. In each of her moves, Crane fails to find fulfillment. She is looking for more than how to integrate her mixed ancestry. She expresses complex feelings about what she and her friends consider genetic differences between races.  At the historical moment of the novel, the question of racial uplift was a problematic one, as everyone, it seemed, was invested in a discourse of racial uplift, from Nazi propagandists to W.E.B. Dubois.  This logic was one of improvement, whether through breeding or gene manipulation.
The novel develops Crane's search for a marriage partner. As it opens, she has become engaged to marry a prominent Southern Negro man, whom she does not really love, but with whom she can gain social benefits. In Denmark she turns down the proposal of a famous white Danish artist for similar reasons. By the final chapters, Crane has married a typical black Southern preacher. The novel's close is deeply pessimistic. Crane had hoped to find sexual fulfillment in marriage and some success in helping the poor southern blacks she lives among, but instead she has frequent pregnancies and suffering. Disillusioned with religion, her husband, and her life, Crane fantasizes about leaving her husband, but never does.

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