Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Week 11, Larsen

Nella Larsen. Quicksand (1527-1609).

Page-by-Page Notes on Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1527-1609).

1527. Intro. Du Bois had said that the Twentieth Century would be about “the problem of the color-line.” Race would be the defining issue. Du Bois’ “talented tenth” concept might be the spiritual progenitor of the Harlem Renaissance, which Langston Hughes later called “a state of mind.” This was especially true of the Roaring 20’s. The Harlem Renaissance includes authors such as James Weldon Johnson, Claude Mackay, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Nella Larson, among others. The idea for Du Bois was that people of African descent should cultivate their own space, their own identity—not an identity based on white people and their expectations. Well, Nella Larsen is part of the Harlem Renaissance, but she seems to have interpreted both the “primitivist” or essentialist emphasis and the Du Boisian “New Negro” emphasis as traps, at least if one espoused them too rigidly.

Larsen’s protagonist in Quicksand, who is of mixed race, burns with anger at both white people and black people. She neither accepts being defined by whites nor falls comfortably into line with any definition of herself. This isn’t to say that she can get away from others’ definitions—her experience in the novel is largely structured by them. That fact is what makes this excellent book so depressing—on the one hand, Larsen has created a strong protagonist who strives for happiness and self-perfection, and who rightly rejects the notion that she ought to be defined or limited in her actions by race. But on the other hand, almost everything that happens to her amounts to that kind of obstacle. Her search for fulfillment bears some resemblance to that of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening—both try to achieve some measure of independence, and both want to be accepted for who they are, but others find it impossible to make such “concessions.”

What underlies Helga Crane’s unhappiness and discontent? Well, I’d say it’s the basic predicament so well described by John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography: the desire for freedom, for fulfillment and success, for “things,” for happiness as something more than just a fleeting moment. The trouble is, of course, that all of these basic desires are not only difficult to attain, but in Helga’s case they are inflected by America’s problems with race relations (as well as by certain limitations placed on her by others because of her gender). The German philosopher Georg Hegel made a key modern point about identity when he suggested that it was formed by dynamic relationships with others. His claim that freedom could only be fully realized in a community was influential, too. It’s obvious in view of this matrix how difficult Helga’s search for freedom and self-development will be: she really isn’t accepted even by those white people who care about her in America, and she chafes at the kind of black community she encounters at the Naxos school where she teaches for a time. Helga feels the kind of “twoness” that Du Bois attributes to black people in the United States during his time, and in fact even going to a Scandinavian country doesn’t take away this strong sense of double identity. The only solution to Helga’s quest—marrying a black minister and moving to the South—hardly turns out to be authentic or satisfying.

1538-41. Helga feels the need to belong somewhere, but the uplift community’s tool is to suppress so-called race tendencies. Dr. Anderson nearly “uplifts” Helga right back into the uplift project she is determined to reject, but when he reveals the basis for his pitch—his assumption that Helga is “a person from a good family,” she feels more than ever driven to define herself against such snobbishness. Even so, her defiance masks deep inner conflict about her sense of identity and belonging.

1550. Rejected by Uncle Peter on 1544-45, and subsequently by prospective employers for being overqualified, Helga finds that fate takes the shape of Jeanette Hayes-Rore. This wealthy ideologue leads her to New York City’s Harlem and to Anna (who becomes her landlord and friend) and away from Chicago (where she was born) as well as from the South.

1577. What one wants is often impossible to define; still, one is compelled to define it anyway, to supply some content. That content must come from somewhere—the trouble is that a person really can’t control “where” it comes from, at least not entirely.

1578ff (Chs. 13-15). In Copenhagen, Helga is not considered inferior, but she’s viewed as exotic, almost freakish. Others make decisions for her, and we find her slipping into her old pattern of anger and discontent. The Vaudeville act she witnesses infuriates her—she has internalized this “silly half-savage” notion of black people, so seeing it on the state unsettles her. Moreover, the Danes betray a kind of wide-eyed racial bias that is no less wounding even if it lacks the historical saturation and malevolence of American racism. Underlying the Danes’ laughter at the Vaudeville act may well be the same pseudo-scientific race notions from which the white South developed its justification of their “peculiar institution” of race-based slavery.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.

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