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A light-skinned beauty who spends years passing for white finds herself dangerously drawn to an old friend's Harlem neighborhood. A restless young mulatto tries desperately to find a comfortable place in a world in which she sees herself as a perpetual outsider. A mother's confrontation with tragedy tests her loyalty to her race. The gifted Harlem Renaissance writer Nella L A light-skinned beauty who spends years passing for white finds herself dangerously drawn to an old friend's Harlem neighborhood. A restless young mulatto tries desperately to find a comfortable place in a world in which she sees herself as a perpetual outsider. A mother's confrontation with tragedy tests her loyalty to her race. The gifted Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen wrote compelling dramas about the black middle class that featured sensitive, spirited heroines struggling to find a place where they belonged. Passing, Larsen's best-known work, is a disturbing story about the unraveling lives of two childhood friends, one of whom turns her back on her past and marries a white bigot. Just as disquieting is the portrait in Quicksand of Helga Crane, half black and half white, who can't escape her loneliness no matter where and with whom she lives. Race and marriage offer few securities her or in the other stories in a collection that is compellingly readable, rich in psychological complexity, and imbued with a sense of place that brings Harlem vibrantly to life.


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A light-skinned beauty who spends years passing for white finds herself dangerously drawn to an old friend's Harlem neighborhood. A restless young mulatto tries desperately to find a comfortable place in a world in which she sees herself as a perpetual outsider. A mother's confrontation with tragedy tests her loyalty to her race. The gifted Harlem Renaissance writer Nella L A light-skinned beauty who spends years passing for white finds herself dangerously drawn to an old friend's Harlem neighborhood. A restless young mulatto tries desperately to find a comfortable place in a world in which she sees herself as a perpetual outsider. A mother's confrontation with tragedy tests her loyalty to her race. The gifted Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen wrote compelling dramas about the black middle class that featured sensitive, spirited heroines struggling to find a place where they belonged. Passing, Larsen's best-known work, is a disturbing story about the unraveling lives of two childhood friends, one of whom turns her back on her past and marries a white bigot. Just as disquieting is the portrait in Quicksand of Helga Crane, half black and half white, who can't escape her loneliness no matter where and with whom she lives. Race and marriage offer few securities her or in the other stories in a collection that is compellingly readable, rich in psychological complexity, and imbued with a sense of place that brings Harlem vibrantly to life.

30 review for The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and the Stories

  1. 4 out of 5

    leynes

    Woop woop! Just finished my first book for Black History Month (even though, technically, five full works are included in this bind-up edition). I'm so happy that I made Nella Larsen my author of choice for this very special month. Nella (1891 – 1964) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Working as a nurse and a librarian, she published two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, she earned recognition by her cont Woop woop! Just finished my first book for Black History Month (even though, technically, five full works are included in this bind-up edition). I'm so happy that I made Nella Larsen my author of choice for this very special month. Nella (1891 – 1964) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Working as a nurse and a librarian, she published two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, she earned recognition by her contemporaries. A revival of interest in her writing has occurred since the late 20th century, when issues of racial and sexual identity have been studied. Quicksand was out of print from the 1930s to the 1970s. It is a work that explores both cross-cultural and interracial themes. The novel functions as a semi-autobiographical novel as there are direct ties between Nella Larsen's life and the life of the fictional Helga Crane. Like Larsen, Helga is of mixed racial background, functioning as a psychological problem due to her failure to create a sense of self that fits into the community. She finds this process alienating, her only comfortable identity is as an outsider. Due to this, Helga Crane produces a peculiar relationship with happiness in which she doesn't know what it is, but she knows she doesn't have it. Set primarily in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in the 1920s, Passing centers on the reunion of two childhood friends—Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield—and their increasing fascination with each other's lives. The title refers to the practice of racial "passing", and is a key element of the novel; Clare Kendry's attempt to pass as white for her husband, John Bellew, is its most significant depiction in the novel, and a catalyst for the tragic events. The Wrong Man and Freedom appeared in 1926 in Young's Magazine. Under the surface narrative, both short stories tell us that marriage is often a precarious balancing act, especially when spouses have not been honest with each other and have concealed aspects of their former selves. Both stories are free of any racial commentary—no doubt because of the magazine in which they appeared. Sanctuary was published in Forum in January 1930. The power of Larsen's story is undeniable. Race is the strongest tie that binds people together. Even though Jim killed her son, Annie will protect him because he is black. Nowhere else in her published work had Nella Larsen made such an emphatic statement about blackness. The story is terse, direct—totally convincing in its use of dialect. All in all, my heart is full after reading Larsen's complete work and learning a bit more about her personal life and the Harlem Renaissance as a whole. It's so tragic that false charges that her story, Sanctuary, had been plagiarized basically destroyed her literary career. She completed three other novels in her lifetime but all of them got rejected. Unfortunately, those stories are lost to us forever. Nella Larsen is definitely undervalued. She deserves more love and attention which is why I can't wait to review all of her work on my channel.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    I read this book because I'm interested in the literature of "Passing" and was curious about Nella Larsen's short novel with that title. Passing is very good (though the ending seems implausible) but her novel Quicksand is even better. Why hadn't I known of this important African American woman writer before? I'd have taught her in Women's Literature courses and will do so in the future... very modern in her outlook on women's lives, particularly in her writing about an intelligent modern woman I read this book because I'm interested in the literature of "Passing" and was curious about Nella Larsen's short novel with that title. Passing is very good (though the ending seems implausible) but her novel Quicksand is even better. Why hadn't I known of this important African American woman writer before? I'd have taught her in Women's Literature courses and will do so in the future... very modern in her outlook on women's lives, particularly in her writing about an intelligent modern woman of color.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Barrow Wilfong

    I can't think how I discovered Nella Larssen. It's always through some other author. At any rate I got her book, Passing, and was enthralled by it. So I got the rest of her books. They are equally fascinating. I have always been interested in the subject of race, what constitutes race, what qualifies someone as belonging to a certain race. This is especially true in the history of my country, the United States. Slavery produced a lot of mixed race people, thanks to the abuse of plantation owners, I can't think how I discovered Nella Larssen. It's always through some other author. At any rate I got her book, Passing, and was enthralled by it. So I got the rest of her books. They are equally fascinating. I have always been interested in the subject of race, what constitutes race, what qualifies someone as belonging to a certain race. This is especially true in the history of my country, the United States. Slavery produced a lot of mixed race people, thanks to the abuse of plantation owners, considering the female slave population as their personal harem. After a generation or two an entirely new race arrived, which was neither black nor white, but both. Many slaves were as white, if not whiter, than the plantation owners. Other authors have dealt with this subject. Mark Twain does in his hilarious parody, Puddin' Head Wilson. Kate Chopin wrote a haunting short story about the same subject, which should be required reading of anyone who is interested in the, history and social structure and of New Orleans before the Civil War. Charles W. Chestnut and Jean Toomer were two authors of mixed race who looked white but identified as black. Their stories often deal with the subject of racial identity. Nella Larsen's father a biracial man from the West Indies, who quite possibly never identified as black, and her mother was a Danish immigrant. Her father disappeared early in her life and her mother married again, this time a fellow Dane, and Nella adopted his last name of "Larsen". I have already reviewed the story "Passing" elsewhere, so I will concentrate on the rest of Larsen's ouvre in this review. It is sadly a small body of work. I wish there was much more. In this collection there are three short stories, each conclude with a O'Henry-esque twist. These brief tales hold the reader in suspense and pack a tight punch at the very end. Quicksand is considered to be autobiographical. It is about Helga Crane, a pretty young woman with a Danish mother and West Indian father. Her father deserts the family and Crane and her mother live in social isolation because her American European relatives won't acknowledge her. As an adult and her mother by now dead, Crane seeks to make sense of her identity, to find out where she belongs. Rejected by the white population, she works first in a school for black people in the South. She hates this job because she feels the black community is backwards and unimaginative. They don't celebrate life, they endure it. She holds them in contempt and herself above them as she views herself as superior in culture and intellect. She quits in the middle of the year and returns to Chicago looking for work, which she finally receives as the personal companion to a woman who travels and gives speeches about the race problem. This woman finds Helga a job in Harlem and a young, pretty and wealthy black widow invites her to live with her as a companion. Through this woman Helga is introduced to progressive and liberal black and white people. At first she feels a sense of belonging, but their incessant tirade against the "racial problem" and their blatant and fierce hatred of white people, whom they blame for every single ill of the black race, grows repetitive and monotonous. Especially since this woman and her friends are all well off and would not deign to interact with the lower black classes they profess to advocate for. Helga cannot fight against a growing sense of isolation and separation from a group of people she has come to find boorish. Again she is filled with contempt as she concludes that, while their lives are exciting, filled with social occasions and fashionable clothes and houses, they are empty on the inside. Helga comes to hate them just as she hated the poor black community in the South. She receives a letter from her mother's family in Denmark. They want her to come live with them, so Helga takes a ship to Scandinavia. Here she is met warmly by a white group of people who treat her dramatically different than her white family back in Chicago. At first she has to get over being the only black person and eventually she does as the people in town grow used to seeing someone who looks different from them. Her Danish family is wealthy and they take care to dress her expensively and take her to the best parties and balls and social occasions. They hope to make her an advantageous match with one of their friends. But Helga cannot immerse herself in the culture. She does not fit in. Her family tells her she is being ridiculous. She simply cannot overcome her emotional detachment from those around her, even though they love her. A young Danish man proposes marriage to her but she is against interracial marriage. Her family asks her who she plans to marry, then? Why is she so stubborn and unreasonable? Again her contempt and hatred for others overwhelms her and she wants to leave. Finally Helga returns to America to attend the wedding of her friend in Harlem. But when she gets there she undergoes a queer religious experience where she believes she has finally found her place. She marries a preacher and returns down South with him. Her life becomes one of a domestic housekeeper and mother of many children. Helga throws herself into this life trying to sustain her initial fever of religious experience. But it doesn't last and she finally "wakes up" with horror to the kind of life she has condemned herself to. She wants to run away, but she feels obligated to stay with her children. She finally concludes that there is no hope, no meaning, no escape from herself and she gives birth to her fifth child and there the story ends. The story is a tragedy and not for the reasons some people have asserted. I have read that it was the "white supremacist" culture of America that ruined Helga's life. But Larsen is excruciatingly honest with self-examination. She shows it is herself that is alienated. Many people are bi-racial; every single person regardless of race of economic level suffers tragedy. There is persecution everywhere. Everyone can choose to allow their circumstances to defeat them, or to rise above them and conquer. Nella Larsen was a crucial and integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, but she quit writing and died in obscurity. I'm afraid her own stubborn myopic view of life is what eventually defeated her.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Aubrey

    The short stories: 3/5 Quicksand: 5/5 Passing: 4/5 Total: 4.5/5 She hated white people with a deep and burning hatred, with the kind of hatred which, finding itself held in sufficiently numerous groups, was capable someday, on some great provocation, of bursting into dangerously malignant flames. But she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living. As much as things have changed and as much new material I've been exposed to, my ratings for Larsen's works have not. I'd foll The short stories: 3/5 Quicksand: 5/5 Passing: 4/5 Total: 4.5/5 She hated white people with a deep and burning hatred, with the kind of hatred which, finding itself held in sufficiently numerous groups, was capable someday, on some great provocation, of bursting into dangerously malignant flames. But she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living. As much as things have changed and as much new material I've been exposed to, my ratings for Larsen's works have not. I'd follow this up with a common "for good or for ill", but considering the track record I've been having with revisiting authors who have penned favorites, I'm going to stay content with the good. Much as Larsen specializes in the pithy, I found each of her short stories a bit too short, the minute twitches of her razor sharp analysis of emotions compacted a side too much into the realm of melodrama to make for quality engagement. Her novels, though, give her incisive whip crack of a wit and writing style enough room to fly to endings which, if unhappy, are all too realistic, and soaked to the gills with a world that the US has not, for all its efforts to deny such, moved past. [N]o matter what the intensity of his feelings or desires might be, he was not the sort of man who would for any reason give up one particle of his own good opinion of himself. It's not actually a good thing for a classic to still be relevant due to its particular descriptions of institutionalized pain and oppression. This gives the group that has been dishing out such an excuse to render its view of the constructed Other myopic, as evidenced by the plethora of slave narratives receiving adulation in the film awards and other such trumpeted evaluation systems. The creative mind is free, but if the only images of certain groups that are raised to the easily accessible realm of public perception are those consigning them to hell on earth, it renders fiction just another tool of the hegemonic armory. It's a good thing, then, that Larsen has the skill to take on not only antiblackness, but the associated misogynoir and trope of the tragic mulatto in a fashion that, while focused on heroines forced to face monsters they never should have faced, redirects and deconstructs every threat faced, physical and non. This is the difference between fiction and solidification: the first takes life and gives it the means to set itself free, while the second slops together a various selection of dehumanizations and slews it out for the sake of status-quo reinforcing entertainment and the next injection of capitalism's carrot. In that second she saw that she could bear anything, but only if no one knew that she had anything to bear. After a reread, I can see why Passing is clinically superior: it is less erratic, more believable, and shapes itself around the more volatile segments of Quicksand rather than centering itself through it. However, as unbelievably as Helen Crane hurls herself through life, the leaps of faith she makes again and again are much closer to my heart and my own experiences than the tenacious grip Irene Redfield keeps on her domestic stability, and so the more self-contained and plot arc-conforming pass me by by a smidgen. One thing Passing has in it that Quicksand doesn't have is intimations at bisexuality, and while the Wiki goes straight for lesbianism, the most Irene does is find both men (yes, even her husband/so called beard) and women extremely attractive, so monosexuals are just going to have to chill. I'll also admit that Passing has the better ending(view spoiler)[: There's nothing quite like the feeling of maybe having gotten away with murder (hide spoiler)] . Here were no tatters and rags, no beggars. But, then, begging, she learned, was an offense punishable by law. I look forward to future rereads.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    Although this slim volume actually represents Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen's entire written output, for my money her 1929 novella Passing so far eclipses any of its other contents, that I might almost suggest starting the book on page 163, reading to the end, and only re-starting from the beginning if you fall in love with what you find. I'll therefore be focusing today on Passing, with only a brief note to explain my preference: in her 1928 Quicksand, and even more in the short storie Although this slim volume actually represents Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen's entire written output, for my money her 1929 novella Passing so far eclipses any of its other contents, that I might almost suggest starting the book on page 163, reading to the end, and only re-starting from the beginning if you fall in love with what you find. I'll therefore be focusing today on Passing, with only a brief note to explain my preference: in her 1928 Quicksand, and even more in the short stories that precede it, I was underwhelmed by Larsen's compulsion to "tell" rather than "show"; in fact she spends so much time over-explaining her main character's mental states that she has scarcely any opportunity to demonstrate them through actions or circumstances. While the result would probably still be of interest to a diaspora studies major (the protagonist of Quicksand, Helga Crane, is a chronically restless woman of mixed race attempting to find her place in the world), it struck me as basically a bundle of theoretical circumstances, with no real evocation of place or character. Add to that a "cold," not-particularly-supple prose style, and I was surprised to have read about Larsen's increasing prominence in the canon over the past few years—unless Quicksand is to be read purely as a logic-based essay on mixed-race socialization. Passing, however, changed my opinion of Larsen's capabilities, and made me regret her 1930 abandonment of writing for nursing, since I would love to see where her trajectory would have taken her otherwise. While Larsen's preoccupation with her protagonist's psychology is still on display here, it is complemented by vivid depictions of late 1920s Harlem and its upper-middle-class black culture. Her prose is more limber, more versatile, and creates sinister undercurrents running among her characters. With this kind of backdrop, Larsen's trademark insights into the liminal spaces between white and black (and possibly between same-sex and opposite-sex attraction) are much more engaging, since they seem to pertain to actual humans rather than to bundles of explication only. Plot-wise, Passing centers around the relationship between two old school friends, Irene Redfield and Clare Kindry, who meet again by chance on hot summer day after many years apart. Irene, from whose perspective we get our limited-third-person narration, is an upstanding member of the middle-class Negro set, the kind of woman who organizes luncheons and charity balls. As such she feels scandalized by the knowledge, picked up here and there via vague rumors, that blond, charismatic Clare has crossed the color line, married a white man, and is passing herself off as white. Indeed, it soon transpires that Clare's situation is both more privileged and more precarious than Irene's own, and both women have conflicted feelings about the choices they have made. Although Irene spends much of her time feeling offended by Clare, and repeatedly promises herself and her husband that she will cut all ties with her old friend, she allows an ongoing relationship to develop—this even after she has met Clare's shockingly racist husband, and despite her knowledge that by helping Clare to revisit Harlem she is putting them both in danger. One of the interesting aspects of the novella is Irene's relationship with the idea of "passing." She herself is light-skinned, usually taken for someone of Italian or Spanish descent, and in the opening scene we actually see her passing for white herself by entering and allowing herself to be served at a segregated restaurant: No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn't possibly know. [...] Nevertheless, Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It wasn't that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her. Despite her own willingness to slip through the color boundary now and then, however, Irene's morality is outraged by Clare's decision to turn her back on "her own kind," to live permanently with white people who believe that she is also white. Interestingly, many of Irene's objections seem to be similar to those a middle-class white woman might make: Clare ought to know her place, but instead she is grasping. Irene says several times that Clare always had a "having" disposition, that she was greedy, unsatisfiable. When Clare asks Irene if she's ever thought of "passing," Irene answers contemptuously "No, why would I?" (despite the fact that she IS passing at the very moment this conversation is going on), and continues "I have everything I want." Passing, then, in Irene's mind and also Clare's, equates to a way of "getting more," of obtaining illicit goods and status that would be unavailable to a black person. Irene takes Clare's decision as an insult, since it implies that what Irene "has" isn't good enough, but she also, at some level, understands the allure. She also definitely understands the allure of Clare herself; there is a strong current of physical attraction that overtakes her more logical resolutions every time she meets Clare in person. During their initial meeting Irene thinks to herself that Clare had always had that pale gold hair, which, unsheared still, was drawn loosely back from a broad brow, partly hidden by the small close hat. Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth. The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft luster. And the eyes were magnificent! Dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them.        Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes! Mysterious and concealing. and set in that ivory face under that bright hair, there was about them something exotic. At first flush the above paragraph reads like so many pointless fawning descriptions of beautiful women, but in reality there's much more going on. As Irene contemplates Clare, she is more and more drawn in—that "tempting" mouth isn't just tempting in the abstract, but tempting to Irene specifically. It's worth noting, too, that as much as Clare's decision to pass for white legitimately offends Irene, it's the "exotic" mixture of white European and black African features in the other woman's face that she finds so irresistible. So too, Clare's "Negro" eyes are "mysterious and concealing"—mysterious even to Irene, who herself identifies as a Negro. In this association of Negro with mystery, we can see Irene's internalization of the dominant (i.e., white) messaging around racial identity. Even though she is herself black, and socializes primarily with black people, she still thinks of blacks as embodying "mystery" in a way whites do not. Later in the novel, she and a white novelist speculate about what draws white men and women to balls given by black people. Irene opines that it's merely "curiosity" about potential dancing partners of another race, but she herself is more curious about—and drawn to—the "mysterious" hidden blackness of Clare than about dancing with any white man. In fact, if we consider Irene's association of exoticism, mystery and concealment with black people, and if we see her own bourgeois morality as inherited from white Christian society, Larsen could be read as implying that blond, passing Clare is somehow more of a Negro than black-haired, repressive Irene—or at least, that Irene is engaged in just as much artifice as her coveted friend. I know that this review is almost over and I've hardly strayed outside the novella's opening scene, but this is a piece whose plot-based subtleties are best discovered for oneself. Suffice it to say that the anxieties and ambivalences on display in this scene continue to grind against each other in interesting and, ultimately, tragic ways as the novella progresses. A fascinating glimpse of the interactions of race and sexuality in early 20th century Harlem.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Samadrita

    The short stories are excellent despite their brevity. Quicksand - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... Passing - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... The short stories are excellent despite their brevity. Quicksand - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... Passing - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

  7. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    A great short story collection from Larsen, she manages to capture in these tales the disillusionment and feeling of never truly belonging to those stuck between two worlds and never feeling at home in either. Whether it’s outright “Passing” or the constantly moving, trying vainly to find your place, while sinking further into the “Quicksand” of the race question, these strike home in a very personal way. You can feel the soul crushing pressure of not belonging because you’re not black enough to A great short story collection from Larsen, she manages to capture in these tales the disillusionment and feeling of never truly belonging to those stuck between two worlds and never feeling at home in either. Whether it’s outright “Passing” or the constantly moving, trying vainly to find your place, while sinking further into the “Quicksand” of the race question, these strike home in a very personal way. You can feel the soul crushing pressure of not belonging because you’re not black enough to be black and not white enough be white, forever being in-between two extremes. The other short stories and snippets,I can only say they left me wishing she had written more and that more had survived, especially the way to short Wrong Man.

  8. 4 out of 5

    tortoise dreams

    Everything Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen published in her too-short writing life. Book Review: The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen amply demonstrates that Larsen (1891-1964) had a ridiculously and tragically short literary career, and it's worth looking at her life just to see why it was so brief. The biracial Larsen, a nurse and soon to become a librarian, married Elmer Imes (one of the few black physicists in America) in 1919, and they became part of the Harlem bourgeois and the Harle Everything Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen published in her too-short writing life. Book Review: The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen amply demonstrates that Larsen (1891-1964) had a ridiculously and tragically short literary career, and it's worth looking at her life just to see why it was so brief. The biracial Larsen, a nurse and soon to become a librarian, married Elmer Imes (one of the few black physicists in America) in 1919, and they became part of the Harlem bourgeois and the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote two "commercial" stories under a pseudonym, published her first novel Quicksand (dedicated to her husband) in 1928, and followed it with the even more acclaimed Passing the next year. At that point she was one of the brightest stars of the Harlem Renaissance. The two novels were followed by a short story published in 1930, which led to charges of plagiarism. She never published again. Larsen traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim grant, writing a new novel Mirage (no manuscript has been found), returning in 1932. After learning of her husband's affair with a white woman the couple divorced in 1933. She acknowledged that "he broke my heart" and suffered from depression for several years. Mirage, concerned a woman who learns her husband is still in love with his first wife, and so she has an affair with a "cad." It was rejected by her publisher, as were her next two novels. At that point Larsen stopped writing. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen (2001, originally published in 1992) includes all that she published. Afterward, she retained her ex-husband's name, and later began a highly successful nursing career that lasted the rest of her life. She was always exceptional. The first two stories Larsen published are competent and entertaining, but not earth shattering, not to the level of her novels. She called them her "hack writing," though I think the stories are better than that. Their greatest interest, however, may be for the purpose of re-examining them in light of Larsen's racial background and her unstable marriage. For example, one story concerns a woman who has risen from poverty to security, but fears that all could be lost in a moment. The other is about a man who abandons his mistress because of some "depravity" in her character. "The Wrong Man" and "Freedom," both published in 1926 under a pseudonym (the too-clever "Allen Semi"), are solid, though average (the writing is fine) at best, say nothing overtly about race, are ostensibly about white people, and both depend on an inartful surprise ending. Neither story seems to be from the Nella Larsen we know and love. The third story, "Sanctuary," was published in January 1930. It was soon recognized as plagiarized from "Mrs. Adis" (1922) by Sheila Kaye-Smith, which was set in England. Although the duplication is undeniable (the similarities are described as "striking," "telling," and "embarrassing"), Larsen refashioned "Mrs. Adis" to her own purposes. The story was about working-class American blacks, rather than the bourgeois blacks she wrote about in her novels and other stories. Her version also, atypically, included dialect (as did the original), but more significantly, the key plot twist depends on race loyalty, rather than simple friendship as in Kaye-Smith's story. Despite the poaching, I think Larsen's story is the more powerful. It's a shame that she didn't realize what she'd done or didn't do more to distinguish "Sanctuary," as it's a valuable addition to her work. I believe Larsen simply and deliberately retold the story in a new and more dramatic setting, but for some reason felt she couldn't acknowledge that. Quicksand, her first novel, told the story of a biracial woman seeking her identity, but unable to survive in either the black or white worlds. Our protagonist, Helga Crane, can be bold, daring, but also self destructive (as Larsen described it, the "sorry tale of a girl who got what she wanted"). She needs to, but can't escape from the expectations others place on her, living in a world that harshly enforces the rules of the color line (and sexuality), and denies a place for someone who doesn't fit as either black or white. The ending is despairing and claustrophobic. Apart from its notable social significance, Quicksand is a work of substantial literary merit, more complex then similar novels of the time. Larsen's second novel, the play-like Passing, introduces two women, both sides of the same coin. Irene (our narrator) is a mixed-race woman married to black man and who lives in the black community. Clare is a mixed-race woman married to a virulently racist white man and now "passes" for white. (Some have said that Larsen herself "passed," but she was proud of her race and there is no evidence that she ever did so or even could have.) Clare wants to re-engage with the community of her childhood, despite the danger of being exposed, and thus we have a story. Again Larsen investigates the color line in America adding the additional complications of marriage and sexuality. Both are excellent novels that still have much to say beyond their historical interest. They should be a rich source for academic discourse. Of the two, I prefer Passing, but both are strong novels that can only make us sorrow that Nella Larsen was unable to publish in the last 34 years of her life. The legacy she left for us is rich, but too little. [4★]

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

    These stories were amazig. Larsen discusses the race problem in such a complex matter - it is either very forward, down played or ambiguous. These work of fictions are nothing to what I've read before. The main characters are real, struggling, and flawed - and I really enjoyed that. These stories were amazig. Larsen discusses the race problem in such a complex matter - it is either very forward, down played or ambiguous. These work of fictions are nothing to what I've read before. The main characters are real, struggling, and flawed - and I really enjoyed that.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tereneh

    "Discovering The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt." --Maya Angelou So said, I cannot say it any better. My only wish is that there is more work yet to be discovered. She is simply one of the best writers of the 20th century. Period. I did not want any of the stories to stop. Quicksand, my favorite of the two short novels, I literally gasped when I turned to the final page. I had to stop for a fe "Discovering The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt." --Maya Angelou So said, I cannot say it any better. My only wish is that there is more work yet to be discovered. She is simply one of the best writers of the 20th century. Period. I did not want any of the stories to stop. Quicksand, my favorite of the two short novels, I literally gasped when I turned to the final page. I had to stop for a few moments to pause and reflect. Brilliant Ms Larsen is, I want to wake her up from her slumber and ask her to Please please please write more!

  11. 4 out of 5

    James F

    Nella Larsen was one of the most important writers of the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s. Apart from three rather forgettable short stories, this book contains Larsen's two published novels. (A third later novel was rejected by the publishers and is apparently lost.) One of my Goodreads groups is reading Passing next month; I will review that separately in the Norton Critical edition. This review will focus on her other, somewhat less known novel, Quicksand. The protagonist, Helga Crane, is l Nella Larsen was one of the most important writers of the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s. Apart from three rather forgettable short stories, this book contains Larsen's two published novels. (A third later novel was rejected by the publishers and is apparently lost.) One of my Goodreads groups is reading Passing next month; I will review that separately in the Norton Critical edition. This review will focus on her other, somewhat less known novel, Quicksand. The protagonist, Helga Crane, is like Larsen herself of mixed Danish and Black ancestry; her Black father abandoned her white mother and she and her white second husband were embarassed by Helga's existence. In addition to the objective rejection of Helga as a mixed raced child, a theme which was already common in Black literature, Larsen shows the psychology of the girl herself, her internalization of her parents' dislike, such that she can not identify for very long with either race. She despises the educated Black elite to which she initially belongs for trying to imitate white behaviors, but also despises the Blacks who are uneducated as vulgar. Reading this a month or so after reading Colin Whitehead's Underground Railroad, my first impression was that there was a similarity in the way the two books were structured; although Whitehead's book is deliberately chronologically ambiguous, showing many different periods as simultaneous, while Larsen's novel deals realistically with a definite period of history (the 1920's), both use geography to explore the different aspects of Black experience. Quicksand begins with Helga as a teacher in a Black "Uplift" school, which reminded me of Whitehead's "Charleston", a "liberal" institution which attempts to "raise" Blacks to a higher but still subordinate place in white dominated society. Rebelling against that, she moves to Harlem, where Blacks live apart with a certain freedom to be Black, but bounded by poverty and the discrimination of the surrounding white city. Her third move is to Copenhagen, where she is more or less exhibited as an exotic; not considered as inferior but definitely as different, and her uniqueness is still defined by her racial identity rather than her personal identity. She than moves back to the United States, and ends up in a small Southern town where she tries to fit into the mold of uneducated Black society (and traditional domestic and religious life). With each move she becomes more deeply trapped, hence the title. I found the love theme and the Alabama ending as somewhat poorly motivated, and not of the same quality as the earlier chapters. Taken as a whole, however, this was a very good novel and one I would highly recommend.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    This edition was excellent in including both some introductory biographical information about Larsen but also some interpretation of her works included in the collection. I’d never heard of this author but found these stories vibrant and moving. While brief, “The Wrong Man” is a little snippet of a larger picture that ends with quite a shock. The short stories “Freedom” and “Sanctuary” did not impact me as deeply but were interesting. Of the two longer stories, I found both “Passing” and “Quicks This edition was excellent in including both some introductory biographical information about Larsen but also some interpretation of her works included in the collection. I’d never heard of this author but found these stories vibrant and moving. While brief, “The Wrong Man” is a little snippet of a larger picture that ends with quite a shock. The short stories “Freedom” and “Sanctuary” did not impact me as deeply but were interesting. Of the two longer stories, I found both “Passing” and “Quicksand” interesting but enjoyed “Passing” a bit more. The heroine of “Quicksand” is always off-balance, running towards someplace else she feels she will belong and I was frankly tired by the time the end was reached. “Passing” has a lot going on including a number of kinds of passing, thoughts on the good and bad of passing and complex, richly developed characters. Lots of important ideas in all these stories and much to think on. This was a great work to read slowly, thinking about and savoring the themes and ideas.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Petra

    Passing (read Nov 2020) 4-star Nella Larsen has told a tightly woven story of Self and Race. Who are we? What are we? How do we identify ourselves? How and where do we fit into Society? Clare and Irene are two light skinned AfroAmericans in 1927. One has "passed", left her roots behind, married a white man who doesn't realize her heritage, passes and lives as a white woman. The other lives as a privileged AfroAmerican but can conveniently "pass" as white if and when she likes. But she lives and is Passing (read Nov 2020) 4-star Nella Larsen has told a tightly woven story of Self and Race. Who are we? What are we? How do we identify ourselves? How and where do we fit into Society? Clare and Irene are two light skinned AfroAmericans in 1927. One has "passed", left her roots behind, married a white man who doesn't realize her heritage, passes and lives as a white woman. The other lives as a privileged AfroAmerican but can conveniently "pass" as white if and when she likes. But she lives and is known in her circle as coloured. The story of their friendship and it's consequences is tightly written and very gripping from the first to the last page. My first read by Nella Larsen but not my last. I'm looking forward to the rest of these stories.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ida

    Excellent read, especially the two novels. The short stories don’t stand out for me, and I did notice some repetitions and stylistic choices that I found a bit annoying when I read the two novels back to back, which I hadn’t noticed when I read Passing the first time. But these are overshadowed by the complexity of the characters and the wonderful observations about identity and belonging. The writing feels modern and still very much relevant. I wish more of her writing had been published.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Courtney Banks

    This book was so raw and uncut I personally felt so connected to Helga Crane. Having a past and trying to not let her past dictate her future (which is a easier said thing than done) in a world where she feels she does not belong but try hard as she might to make her way through. Regardless of race what color I'm sure all of us have had trouble when it comes to feeling as if you do not belong or trying to get in as they say get it where you can fit in. This book was so raw and uncut I personally felt so connected to Helga Crane. Having a past and trying to not let her past dictate her future (which is a easier said thing than done) in a world where she feels she does not belong but try hard as she might to make her way through. Regardless of race what color I'm sure all of us have had trouble when it comes to feeling as if you do not belong or trying to get in as they say get it where you can fit in.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lona

    Read "Quicksand" for my American Urban Societies Lit class. Read "Quicksand" for my American Urban Societies Lit class.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Julia K

    I find myself thinking about Quicksand and Passing so much in my day to day life. There is a haunting element to Larsen's writing, and I want to think more and spend more time with her work. I find myself thinking about Quicksand and Passing so much in my day to day life. There is a haunting element to Larsen's writing, and I want to think more and spend more time with her work.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Catie

    Real Readers Book Club (Jen) - June 2019

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nichole

    Nella Larsen explored the struggles of mixed-raced or light-skinned African-Americans in early 20th-century America. A writer of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's, Larsen used this famous black cultural period as a background for both her novels. I bought this book for the purpose reading both "Quicksand" and "Passing." I was not disappointed. Both novels met - no surpassed - my expectations of what real writing looked like. The prose in both books was simple and graceful. The main characters Nella Larsen explored the struggles of mixed-raced or light-skinned African-Americans in early 20th-century America. A writer of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's, Larsen used this famous black cultural period as a background for both her novels. I bought this book for the purpose reading both "Quicksand" and "Passing." I was not disappointed. Both novels met - no surpassed - my expectations of what real writing looked like. The prose in both books was simple and graceful. The main characters (especially the glamorous and cunning Clare in "Passing," chapter 1, introduced to us in a letter) were beautiful and complex women. The prose was tightly-paced and perceptive. The main characters in the books, Helga, Irene, and Clare, suffocated as a result of their choices, and their choices were made in response to white supremacy, racism, and elitism. Beautiful, sensitive, and creative souls robbed of honest paths to the American Dream.

  20. 4 out of 5

    VJ

    Surprising is how I describe Larsen's works. There is also foreboding and suspense about her works. Quicksand is ghastly and horrible. Passing foreshadows something sinister. All of Larsen's works are surprising and haunting. Surprising is how I describe Larsen's works. There is also foreboding and suspense about her works. Quicksand is ghastly and horrible. Passing foreshadows something sinister. All of Larsen's works are surprising and haunting.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mary Catherine Pace

    I was delighted to find these short stories by Nella Larsen, prominent writer and personality of the Harlem Renaissance. Although the style and language of the 1920s is a bit dated today, her voice and characters leap from their very interesting historical settings, from a time when a light skin could mean entry to a white world of privilege, with not a little attendant self-loathing, fear, and social suicide connected to the practice of "passing." The central female characters in these stories I was delighted to find these short stories by Nella Larsen, prominent writer and personality of the Harlem Renaissance. Although the style and language of the 1920s is a bit dated today, her voice and characters leap from their very interesting historical settings, from a time when a light skin could mean entry to a white world of privilege, with not a little attendant self-loathing, fear, and social suicide connected to the practice of "passing." The central female characters in these stories are all light-skinned, beautiful, and middle-class. Helga Crane, the character whose story most resembles Nella Larsen's own Danish/African American parentage, is a school teacher, who could probably join the upper-middle class structure by her education and appearance, but feels angry, restless, resentful, and excluded from belonging to any social or racial group or class, as she tries unsuccessfully to find a place of her own in any social setting, wanting to be accepted for herself, rather than as an exotic creature or through pretense to class associations that feel inauthentic. Ultimately, she subsumes her hopes and dreams by literal suicide, through a life of drudgery, childbearing, and the narrow social confines of rural poverty and a religion that fails to bring lasting solace. Nella Larsen's women are looking for agency and authenticity at times and places where such autonomy is restrained. The 1920s world was strictly segregated, and even the lively Harlem scene seems to have been mostly people of color, with a few touristic non-whites who came with suspect motives (Larsen's characters speculate about some of their intentions, but they are mostly unknown and uninteresting to the larger African-American culture.) "Passing" explores the feelings of one of these well-to-do women, Irene, married to a Harlem doctor. I found it interesting that she takes mini-vacations from the confines of Harlem by dressing up, going downtown to take tea in fancy hotels and department stores, where her light skin allows her to "pass" for a time of illicit privileges denied to her darker sisters. She is horrified when learning that her childhood friend is actually married to a white racist who is unaware of her African blood. This is a different and dangerous level of "passing" that frightens and repels Irene. Irene's husband also felt trapped in his duties as a Harlem physician, faced with the everyday poverty and disease of Harlem's less fortunate, longing to escape to Brazil, which represented his dream of a less race-defined culture. Irene feared her husband's deepest wish for escape, while trying to control and direct his energy and attention elsewhere, much as she feared her friend's "passing" mode of escape, trying to control and manage her friendship, despite its attendant risks. Inevitably, both Irene and her husband are drawn to this other woman who represents danger and escape, a widening of possibilities laced with fear and peril. Of course, it doesn't end well. Nella Larsen explores class, race, color, social and sexual relationships, with a longing for authenticity and an eye for pretense and hypocrisy that fascinates the reader with her lucid observations. I wish she had written more than these few brief stories, as she had much to say about her time that still captivates and provides insight for thoughtful readers today.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rita

    PASSING: What a lot of pain in this short novel! publ 1929 [See separate entry under Quicksand, though I read it in this volume.] It's a riveting story, or rather told in a riveting way, and we soon feel we know things are not going to end happy. Set in New York Harlem [and a bit in Chicago], among well-to-do blacks. It is said Larsen makes fun [criticizes] the pretentious social life of the black bourgeoisie. There are indeed many parties and tea parties and shopping trips. Clare [who chose to pas PASSING: What a lot of pain in this short novel! publ 1929 [See separate entry under Quicksand, though I read it in this volume.] It's a riveting story, or rather told in a riveting way, and we soon feel we know things are not going to end happy. Set in New York Harlem [and a bit in Chicago], among well-to-do blacks. It is said Larsen makes fun [criticizes] the pretentious social life of the black bourgeoisie. There are indeed many parties and tea parties and shopping trips. Clare [who chose to pass as white, marrying a white bigot] says: "I haven't any proper morals or sense of duty, as you have, that makes me act as I do...Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I'd do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, I'm not safe." 240 Irene, though she had know Clare well when they were children, never 'gets' the truth of this and does not take Clare seriously. We learn that it is a big moral quandary to blacks: when one of their number chooses to pass, the others all feel required to 'keep the secret' and keep up the pretence [around whites]. 258 Irene "for the first time in her life wished she had not been born a Negro. She suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, without having to suffer for the race as well." The most important thing to Irene was security. She thought if only she could continue keeping everything [her husband, her children, her life] under control, she would stay safe. 254: "In that second she saw that she could bear anything, but only if no one knew that she had anything to bear. It hurt. It frightened her, but she could bear it."

  23. 5 out of 5

    Theresa

    I read Passing and Quicksand in the late 90s. At the time, I really enjoyed Passing and although I couldn't say that I liked Quicksand, I couldn't say that I dislike it either. I recently came across this complete works of hers and decided to read them again. To keep it brief, I didn't like Quicksand at all. It is difficult to like a story when you dislike the main character and so was the case with Quicksand. The main character was shallow, petty, self centered and very immature. She had no rea I read Passing and Quicksand in the late 90s. At the time, I really enjoyed Passing and although I couldn't say that I liked Quicksand, I couldn't say that I dislike it either. I recently came across this complete works of hers and decided to read them again. To keep it brief, I didn't like Quicksand at all. It is difficult to like a story when you dislike the main character and so was the case with Quicksand. The main character was shallow, petty, self centered and very immature. She had no real redeeming qualities. Passing was just mediocre and nothing more. The characters were undeveloped, overly dramatic and phony. This character issue ran consistently through both stories. I didn't encounter one in either book that had substance. The lack of strong characters left for hollow stories without substance as well. Also, if you didn't know that the author was black, you would never have thought that the characters were black either. It reads in every aspect like a book that was written by a white person with white characters and I foundthat odd. I've been an avid reader all my life and as an African American, I have never read a book by a black author with black characters that literally had none of the characteristics of the black culure, none. Here's an exert from Passing that Irene, the main character, said to a friend re her husband's mood, "do go downstairs and talk to Brian.  He has a mad on." This quote is a mild example, but it sums up the manner in which they spoke throughout her stories. Her characters spoke more British than American or within our culture. Very disappointing...

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ellice

    Nella Larsen has a very distinct and unique way of using language--at first it put me off, but I think as I read it grew on me. This book consists of three short stories, and two novella-length pieces, "Quicksand" and "Passing." Her short stories were a bit more pot-boiler-ish, but I still enjoyed "Sanctuary," and to a lesser degree, "Freedom." Of the two novellas, "Quicksand" was tougher for me because I found the main character pretty unlikeable. "Passing," about an African American woman who Nella Larsen has a very distinct and unique way of using language--at first it put me off, but I think as I read it grew on me. This book consists of three short stories, and two novella-length pieces, "Quicksand" and "Passing." Her short stories were a bit more pot-boiler-ish, but I still enjoyed "Sanctuary," and to a lesser degree, "Freedom." Of the two novellas, "Quicksand" was tougher for me because I found the main character pretty unlikeable. "Passing," about an African American woman who lives "passing" as a white woman, was more interesting--the complicated relationships between the characters added to the tension of the situation in an effective way. Larsen's fiction reveals surprisingly modern attitudes about race and class, which made me ponder why I was so surprised to see them in literature from the 20s. She is worth a read if you want to learn more about the African American middle- to upper-middle class in the 1920s, and to that end this book is a great addition to the Harlem Renaissance canon.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jade Levandofsky

    Literary beauty I had to read passing for class and we analyzed it from the lens of women authors of the Victorian era, I enjoyed it then for its nuance on race and the concept of passing used now in relation to gender and transness. I also seemed to see a lesbian lens or politic in both passing and quicksand. Quicksand was a slow start but the last few chapters were written so beautifully and some of the passages resonated with me in terms of feeling rejected as well as being the one rejecting, Literary beauty I had to read passing for class and we analyzed it from the lens of women authors of the Victorian era, I enjoyed it then for its nuance on race and the concept of passing used now in relation to gender and transness. I also seemed to see a lesbian lens or politic in both passing and quicksand. Quicksand was a slow start but the last few chapters were written so beautifully and some of the passages resonated with me in terms of feeling rejected as well as being the one rejecting, but also the metaphoric title of quicksand = sinking little by little and not realizing how your life is slipping by , which explains the abrupt ending. The main reason I'm giving this collection four stars is due to her slow start of each story that sometimes failed to grab me, which was apparent by the fact that it took me 4 years to finally finish the whole book lmao

  26. 4 out of 5

    Candace

    This volume collected both of Nella Larsen’ published novels and a few stories. The most affecting was _Passing_, which tells the stories of those who pass casually and one woman who married a very bigoted white man. The story is as much about the relationship between the central female characters as about anything else. And was there some homoerotic tension in that relationship? Perhaps. Larsen paints vivid portraits of black high society in the roaring twenties, and of the ways that culture wa This volume collected both of Nella Larsen’ published novels and a few stories. The most affecting was _Passing_, which tells the stories of those who pass casually and one woman who married a very bigoted white man. The story is as much about the relationship between the central female characters as about anything else. And was there some homoerotic tension in that relationship? Perhaps. Larsen paints vivid portraits of black high society in the roaring twenties, and of the ways that culture was affected and even warped by white culture. The greatest shame is that, after winning a fellowship to write a third novel, Larsen was unable to find a publisher for it. I’ve heard that same story before, about another talented writer of color. That seems both awful and obscene.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kayle

    I read “Passing” a few months ago, but the collection finally got the vote in book club. 🙃 “Passing” is still my favorite after reading the other stories, but Larsen always has something interesting to say about race and belonging and obligation. The short short stories were fine. “Quicksand” felt overly long for the sheer fact that the protagonist was so miserable and conflicted about her state in the world as a mixed woman who resented her make-up and society. This, more than “Passing” brought I read “Passing” a few months ago, but the collection finally got the vote in book club. 🙃 “Passing” is still my favorite after reading the other stories, but Larsen always has something interesting to say about race and belonging and obligation. The short short stories were fine. “Quicksand” felt overly long for the sheer fact that the protagonist was so miserable and conflicted about her state in the world as a mixed woman who resented her make-up and society. This, more than “Passing” brought up tragic mulatto tropes for me. Collection is worth experiencing, but don’t trip if you can only find “Passing”.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Hermes Griesbach

    This is so worth reading! Nella Larson tells stories only she could tell and they are so transfixing. What was middle and upper class African American life like at the turn of the century? How did colorism function to create caste systems within the godawful racism of the time? These stories come from lived experience. Every character is the truth of their own agency. I am blown away by Larson’s insightful presentation of the nuances of social mores she witnessed and her representations of unive This is so worth reading! Nella Larson tells stories only she could tell and they are so transfixing. What was middle and upper class African American life like at the turn of the century? How did colorism function to create caste systems within the godawful racism of the time? These stories come from lived experience. Every character is the truth of their own agency. I am blown away by Larson’s insightful presentation of the nuances of social mores she witnessed and her representations of universal truths. Her characters are easy to empathize with and live lives, though so different from any of our era, that hold mirrors to reflect t upon our own experiences.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sadionna F

    The book deals with different lives of two black women. Irene Redfield, is part of the Harlem elite, accomplished, and has a good amount of money. Clare is married to a white man, he doesn't know she's black. Knowing how her husband will act feared her into her secret. Clare wanting to meet up with her but Irene doesn't agree with her secret but they all knew how her husband will act. REading the lies and the truths to this story drawn me to read this book. The book deals with different lives of two black women. Irene Redfield, is part of the Harlem elite, accomplished, and has a good amount of money. Clare is married to a white man, he doesn't know she's black. Knowing how her husband will act feared her into her secret. Clare wanting to meet up with her but Irene doesn't agree with her secret but they all knew how her husband will act. REading the lies and the truths to this story drawn me to read this book.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Margo Harris

    This is a remarkable book and a fine example of 1920s Harlem Renaissance writing. It is a sad testament to an award winning author that “The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen” barely fills 250 pages, including 3 short stories and 2 short novels. After a brilliant debut, Larsen never published additional worked, even though she did continue to write for a time. Passing and Quicksand are unique for the time they were written and the reality of the stories they share.

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