Quicksand (Larsen novel)

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Quicksand is a novel by American author Nella Larsen,[1] first published in 1928.[2] This is her first novel and she completed the first draft quickly. The novel was out of print from the 1930s to the 1970s. Quicksand is a work that explores both cross-cultural and interracial themes. Larsen dedicated the novel to her husband.[3]

Discussing the novel, Jacquelyn Y. McLendon called it the more "obviously autobiographical" of Larsen's two novels. Larsen called the emotional experiences of the novel "the awful truth" in a letter to her friend Carl van Vechten.[4][5]

About The Author Nella Larsen[edit]

Nella Larsen was a lot of other things rather than a writer, such as a nurse and librarian as well. She was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 13, 1891.[6] Her mother was Danish and her father was Black West Indian.[7] They lived in the city of Chicago which was a rapidly growing city. By mostly appearance, her family seemed white, but Nella Larsen was somewhat different which had a great affect in her fiction.[6] She studied at Frisk University, which was her first experience in a black community and university.[8] Nella is very well known during her writing during the Harlem Renaissance time period, and she wrote Quicksand during an intense American cultural nationalism, where the nation shared one culture.[9] This period had a variety of a release of books and essays just devoted to this large period of cultural nationalism going on and interpretations of African American modernism going on.[9] Larsen herself worked on various orientations of her writing and was never quite consistent. She published two novels and various short stories, and people said she disappeared from public life and assimilated and passed for white.[10] Many biographies published about Larsen contained information that was not correct, which is why George Hutchinson,[11] wrote a research examination of her life and debunking some of the things falsely stated in previous biographies written about Larsen.[10] In George Hutchinson's piece about the life of Nella Larsen called, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line[12], he used things such as taxes and schools within Copenhagen, New York, and Chicago access aspects of Larsen's life such as things like her birth through adult life.[10] Larsen was portrayed as a revolutionist writer in this piece written by Hutchinson, he analyzes her choices in life and personality.[10] Most of her writings address heavy topics such as passing for white, relationships between black middle-class men and women, and even the suppression of female sexuality.[10] There is a discussion of Quicksand and how it does not deal with race directly, but that the characters are driven by race.[10] He goes into great depth of the strength and complexity of Nella Larsen herself. She longed to be welcomed among African Americans but was also proud of her Danish heritage. Larsen eventually won the Guggenheim Fellowship,[13] and was the first African American woman to receive it.[6] She eventually died of a heart attack at the age of seventy two on March 30, 1964.

Historical Context and The Harlem Renaissance[edit]

The majority of Quicksand by Nella Larsen took place in Harlem, New York City.[14] The story was written and published in 1928, meaning that the infamous 1920’s were almost completed by the time Nella Larsen had published this fictional autobiography. Many major events took place during the 1920’s. Right on Wall Street in 1920, America experienced a horrible terrorist attack that killed nearly 40 civilians, and injured hundreds. With more gruesome things happening, the KKK (Ku Klux Klan[15]) was scaring the whole nation. On the more positive side of 1920, the “Lost Generation” began its transformation of American literature. The term was "coined from something Gertrude Stein witnessed the owner of a garage saying to his young employee, which Hemingway later used as an epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926): "You are all a lost generation." This accusation referred to the lack of purpose or drive resulting from the horrific disillusionment felt by those who grew up and lived through the war, and were then in their twenties and thirties."[16] Another positive note about the 1920’s was that the first ever licenced radio station was created. This was a huge hit for everyone during this time, it allowed for people to listen in real time about news, sports, or whatever else. By 1926, there were over 700 radio stations nationwide. The creation of radio stations sparked the formation of mass media. During 1910-1930’s Harlem was in the “golden period” or the "Roaring 20's"[17] and was shaping the path for many African Americans to display their art of music, dance, literature, and much more. Many famous artists we still know today, were born in the Harlem Renaissance. For example, Langston Hughes and his writing, Countee Cullen and her poetry, Louis Armstrong and his jazz music, Josephine Baker and her musicals, and Aaron Douglas who was a sculptor. These are only just a few of the major names that resemble the Harlem Renaissance, many more African artists came forward as time went on.

Plot summary[edit]

Nella Larsen introduces the educated mixed-race[18] protagonist, Helga Crane who struggles to find her identity in a world of racialized crisis in the 1920s. The novel begins with Helga teaching at a southern black school in Naxos which is meant to be a fictional mirroring of the Tuskegee Institute.[19] Helga is the Daughter of a Danish mother who died when she was an adolescent and West Indian father who is absent. Her early years were spent with her Danish mother and White step-father who loathed her and there began her torn relationship with her split identity. The novel gives us a glimpse into the dichotomy of being mixed raced and the divergence into two vastly different worlds as the protagonist travels through uniquely different cultural spaces from 1920’s Jazz Age[20] Harlem, NY to Copahegan, Denmark.

In Naxos, where the novel begins Helga Crane is a teacher suffering from social angst as she is discontented with the social uplift philosophy delivered by a white preacher. The theme of mainstream white influence is developed throughout the novel, but makes it debut at the very beginning while she is in Naxos. She is repelled by the subjugate demeanor of her superiors with consideration to their attempts to white wash her black counterparts and she criticizes the Booker T. Washington[21] inspired sermon that reinforces racial segregation and warns black students that striving for social equality will lead them to become avaricious. This incites her first endeavor of escapism where she quits her job and moves to chicago. There, her white maternal uncle, now married to a bigoted woman, shuns her. The inimical encounter instigates her move to Harlem.

When in Harlem[22] NY, Helga Crane becomes the secretary to a refined, but often hypocritical, black middle-class woman who is obsessed with the "race problem." She is then launched into her now third hankering to flee. Crane visits her maternal aunt in Copenhagen.[23] Although she enjoys the lavishness of her new voyage, she is treated as a highly desirable racial exotic which forces her to return to New York City. Close to a mental breakdown, Crane happens onto a store-front revival and has a charismatic religious experience. After marrying the preacher who converted her, she moves with him to the rural Deep South.[24] 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.

Throughout the development of the novel, though driven by the search for racial identity, Helga also rejects intimate relationships with every man she encounters at each destination. It isn’t until she fully indulges in an intimate relationship that she becomes forced to exist in a space (Deep South) and becomes stuck.


Helga Crane[edit]

The story’s protagonist.[25] Helga’s mother was born in Denmark[26] and her father was of west-Indian descent. Helga is a young, biracial woman whose journey’s purpose is finding a place where she belongs. She struggles with insecurities. The story begins where she is a teacher at Naxos, a white-imposing school, where she then quits her job that prompts her to spend her time travelling for other jobs and visiting relatives. The story closes with the knowledge that Helga marries a man from the deep south where she ends up being a serial-mother.

James Vayle[edit]

Helga’s fiancé when she is at Naxos. She ends their relationship when she moves away. James comes off as a serious and boring young man.

Mrs. Hayes-Rore[edit]

Helga’s employer that enables Helga to move to Harlem after she leaves Naxos. The protagonist is hired to help Mrs. Hayes-Rore write a speech.

Dr. Robert Anderson[edit]

A 35 year old handsome man with grey eyes. He is known as the principal of Naxos at the beginning of the story, but then becomes someone that Helga thinks of romantically.

Anne Grey[edit]

Helga’s friend that ultimately influences her to the Harlem Culture. Is a socialite[27] and widow that is utterly obsessed with the race problem brought up in the novel.

Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green[edit]

When Helga returns to New York[28] again in the story, she meets this southern reverend[29] after bumping into him at church. The two then get married and move to Alabama where they have 5 children.

Herr Axel Olsen[edit]

Danish artist that proposes to Helga and ultimately gets turned down because he objectifies her.

Fru Dahl (Aunt Katrina)[edit]

Helga’s white aunt in Copenhagen, her mother’s sister.

Herr Dahl (Uncle Poul)[edit]

Helga’s white uncle that lives in Copenhagen. His only wish is for Helga to be happy and get married.

Racial Imposter Syndrome[edit]

Throughout Quicksand By Nella Larsen, You time and again recognize the leading character Helga Crane accepting a battle with Racial Imposter[30] Syndrome. Racial Imposter Syndrome is when typically a biracial person or someone with multiple ethnicities feels like imposters. They do not experience a sense of belonging or identity because they don't fit perfectly into one of their races or ethnicities[31] (Donnella, 2020).[32] This frequently comes up within their everyday lifestyles. Whether they go visit extended family and realize they do not exactly have the same traditions,[33] practices. Even having different features than them. Periodically this comes up in their lives in society. Meaning when society[34] tries to sometimes put people into one box. For example when they ask what race you are in questionnaires and they have only Black, White, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Other. Many mixed-race people feel they can not just choose one because it will be denying another part of them. That if they choose just one they might question it because physically their features may resemble features you would see more in one race. They have a different skin complexion, so they feel obligated to decide on one that matches their skin color.

Some people of our mixed-race identity but their parents themselves are not biracial often feel this is another strain on them. People's first sense of connection is within the family unit. For people struggling with racial imposter syndrome, this often can cause anxiety. They can not turn to their parents for advice. They do not know the experience of having two identities. Some people of our mixed-race identity but their parents themselves are not biracial often feel this is another strain on them. Biracial people frequently feel they have to adopt one identity and then have to try to gain a sense of belonging and inclusion within the racial community they use (Hall, 2019).[35] Essentially meaning that to discover a place where they can fit in, connect with people, or even have people to go to merely for healthy human interaction. Many Biracial people tend to choose whichever race matches their visible features and go with it.[36]

Helga Crane throughout the book you can see battling this issue. Representing a Biracial woman having a white mother and black father, having beautiful brown skin. Yet often having people categorize her into one box. Only seeing her as one race often put a strain on her and her emotions. She constantly never felt she belonged when she was around her white family or counterparts because she physically did not look like them. Her hair, skin, and body features were different. When her mother dies, her uncle takes her in then sends her to an all-black school. She did feel more comfortable because on the outside she looked like them and didn’t have to necessarily deal with racial discrimination. She though still battled with still not feeling like she completely belonged with her black peers, and their experiences, and felt she was disowning part of her. She also had to deal with complexities around colorist views from women in the black community. She still did not perfectly fit into a stereotypical idea or look of a black woman. Oftentimes Helga in her adult life when she felt issues around her race, identity and complexities around it. She would tuck those emotions away, pack up and leave somewhere else. It was not until she went to Paris when she started having more confidence in who she was.


Race, Segregation, and Society[edit]

Helga struggles with race are emphasized due to society’s attitude toward her. Helga’s mental and physical expedition is to find a place where she doesn’t draw attention to., or take away from her differences. However, society and social order play a role in which people are viewed, if they are culturally different. Helga’s racial identity has been constructed by others inability to accept her own differences.  

Mixed Race Identity[edit]

Helga is a young biracial woman; a half white, half black woman. For Helga, identifying as a biracial woman means she has less restrictions when it comes to racial labels. Her struggles with her identity come from the reluctance of others and how they view themselves and others. Helga’s understanding of herself is constructed through cultural artifacts created by others. Helga follows a biracial identity by refusing to follow a strict racial lifestyle but she still acknowledges her black culture.

Race and Gender[edit]

Helga’s future is determined by her sex and her race. Her fascination with clothing and color is a way for Helga to build a female identity for herself. Helga dressed in styles unique to herself and others as a way to stand out from the rest. The way she dressed also goes against the way Naxos wanted their teachers to look. She was meant to stand out.


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