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Friday, June 06, 2014

Quicksand (1928) by Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen, significant novelist of the Harlem Renaissance.

Book Review
Quicksand (1928)
 by Nella Larsen

  The 1920s are the take-off point for the multiplication of literary genres.  First out the gate was experimental Modernism, but the Harlem Renaissance isn't far behind.  Experimental modernism may have more cache with grad students and literature professionals, but the works of the Harlem Renaissance are more enjoyable from the perspective of a casual reader.  Quicksand is the thinly disguised life story of author Nella Larsen, a writer of mixed Danish-American, African-Caribbean parentage who was raised in a white, lower middle class family in the Midwest during the mid to late 19th century.  She attended Fisk University in Nashville (did not graduate) and worked with Booker T. Washington's institute as a nurse before winding up in New York in the 20s, when she married prominent, and second ever, African American physicist, Elmer Innes, and they were a socially prominent couple within the world of the Harlem Renaissance.  Despite her succesful marriage, she as always an outside in the upper echelons of Harlem society because of here white and working class upbringing.

  Thus, her work, which includes a trip by the author/protagonist to Denmark and her experiences in mixed New York society, sits at the fault lines of several important 20th century fissures, but mostly at the intersection of race and class.  This gives some notable heft to what is otherwise a melancholy and dark tale.  Unlike Toomer's Cane, which is an aggregation of short stories, individual scenes and poetry, Quicksand is a classic novel, essentially a bildungsroman about a mixed race woman coming of age in the early 20th century.

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