The Fiction of Nella Larsen Part I: Quicksand (1928) A Classic of Harlem Renaissance

Born to a white mother and an absent black father, and despised for her dark skin, Helga Crane has long had to fend for herself. As a young woman, Helga teaches at an all-black school in the South, but even here she feels different. Moving to Harlem and eventually to Denmark, she attempts to carve out a comfortable life and place for herself, but ends up back where she started, choosing emotional freedom that quickly translates into a narrow existence.

The foreword states that if we don’t call Jane Toomer’s Cane a novel then the most accomplished novel of the Harlem Renaissance movement would be Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.  I discovered Nella Larsen just recently while compiling books for different reading projects I have started, one of them being dedicated to African-American writers. Nella Larsen is, like Zora Neale Hurston, and some other African-American writers, a mystery.

Nella was born to a Danish mother and a West Indian father. These mixed origins are reflected in her work. She wrote only two novels, Quicksand and Passing (which I will review later) and three short stories. After an unsavoury accusation of plagiarism concerning her last short story, she stopped writing. This may or may not have been the reason, it isn’t exactly clear. Before she started writing she was a nurse, later became a librarian and after she stopped writing, worked as a nurse again during the last 30 years of her life. A lot – like in Zora Neale Hurston’s case – isn’t clear. It was never really established when she died, she went under many different names and she fabricated stories around her biography which obscured the facts.

Quicksand is a wonderful novel. I enjoyed it a great deal. It has so much to offer and reminded me at times of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor which is high praise. Helga Crane, the main character, is one of the most interesting heroines I’ve come across recently. A fascinating character. Quicksand explores different themes, the most important are race and gender. It was interesting to read about this. What would it be like if you were constantly aware of the color of your skin? If what you look like is more defining than who you are? For Helga this is doubly tragic as she is, like Nella Larsen herself, of mixed origins. The mother is Danish, the father Afro-American. She isn’t accepted by the Whites and mostly has to hide her white heritage from the Black people around her. There is such a thing as a Harlem High Society and Helga, being a beautiful woman, frequents this society, the cabarets, cocktail parties, salons in which endless discussion on race bore her.

At the beginning of the novel she is a teacher in Naxos but restlessness and contempt for the methods that are applied there, lead her to leave and go back to her home town Chicago. This wasn’t such a good idea, as she has to realize, as it is hard for her to find another job. On top of that she loves nice things, clothes, accessories and spends too much.

Luck is on her side and she finds an employer who takes her to New York, introduces her to the high society of Harlem. A beautiful rich widow, Anne, lets her live at her place until, once more, after some months, she is restless and decides to go to Denmark to visit her mother’s sister.

In Denmark she experiences another side of racism. She is paraded and admired like an exotic animal. One of the most famous men, a painter, wants to get married to her. She enjoys her stay in Denmark. Like before in New York, she thinks at first that she has found “her place”, her home. But once more she gets restless and returns to New York.

Offers for marriage are frequent and equally frequent are her refusals. It is also typical for Helga to be happy when she newly arrives in a place and to see it lose its lustre after a while. When the enthusiasm fades, she is prone to nervous attacks, panic and depression. At the end of her second stay in New York, this happens again.

Helga’s life is a sequence of bad choices, of restlessness, pervaded by a deep feeling of not belonging. When, in a stormy night, she lands in some Christian congregation, she grasps the opportunity to be “saved” and when the pastor asks her to marry him, she accepts and follows him to Alabama.

Her first months in Alabama are full of bliss. She enjoys married life, to be the wife of an important man. There are a few signs here and there that this is superficial and the surface will crack soon but before her first child is born, she is feeling happy.

Everything contributed to her gladness in living. And so for a time she loved everything and everyone. Or thought she did. Even the weather. Ad it was truly lovely. By day a glittering gold sun was set in an unbelievably bright sky. In the evening silver buds sprouted in a Chinese blue sky, and the warm day was softly soothed by a slight cool breeze.And night! Night, when a languid-moon peeped through the wide-open windows of her little house, a little mockingly, may be. Always at night Helga was bewildered by a disturbing medley of feelings. Challenge. Anticipation. And a small fear.

The last part shows us a broken Helga. Someone who looks back on a ruined life, who hates motherhood or rather bearing children. By now  she is the mother of five children and we know there will be more.  She tries to make friends but her natural elegance and haughty looks keep her always outside.

I really liked this book, because I liked the writing and I loved Helga Crane. She is an endearing character with all her wishes, her longing, the restlessness and the feeling of being an outsider wherever she goes. We can see in her every outsider, every human being who doesn’t fully belong, every one who is looking for something to transcend the ordinary. She stands for so many people who are different. But she also stands for the many women who find it hard to live the life of a wife and mother, who are worn out by birth. 

Helga is a tragic figure and did remind me of a friend of mine who, full of hope for something better, turned down every good job offer he got and finally, running out of opportunities,  had to go for something far below his capacities in the end.

There are many interesting parts on race and gender and the criticism of many aspects – for example Christian faith and its promises of a later redemption in which so many Afro-Americans believed and which held them down for so long – are intriguing.

I’m looking forward to read her stories and her second novel Passing.

I should add that both novels are very short, only 130 pages long. I hope this tempts you.