publication date: 1992
Nella Larsen was a lesser known participant in the Harlem Renaissance. She published several stories in the 1920s and then abruptly disappeared after she was accused of plagiarism. The plagiarism accusation was never substantiated or proven, but it seemingly had such a negative effect on Larsen that she escaped from the scene. What she left the literary world with were three short stories and two novellas, all of which were collected in this volume.
Four of the works, The Wrong Man, Freedom, Quicksand, and Passing concentrated on middle-class urban black life. The fifth work, Sanctuary, revolved around a desolate spot somewhere on the “Southern coast.” This also was the work she was accused of plagiarizing.
Sanctuary was probably my favorite work, even though it included the most-dreaded of stylistic devices: dialect. It had a terseness and directness the other works were lacking. For example, this passage describing a man who was hiding from people who were after him:
For a second fear clutched so tightly at him that he almost leaped from the suffocating shelter of the bed in order to make some active attempt to escape the horror that his capture meant. There was a spasm at his heart, a pain so sharp, so slashing, that he had to suppress an impulse to cry out. He felt himself falling. Down, down, down . . . Everything grew dim and very distant in his memory. . . . Vanished . . . Came rushing back.
The two novellas, Quicksand and Passing, focused on women and their options at that time (namely: marriage). Both of these works started off very slow, almost to the point of dullness. Larsen attempted to use description to create a sense of mood and atmosphere and instead only created bloated and skimmable paragraphs:
A slight girl of twenty-two years, with narrow, sloping shoulders and delicate but well-turned arms and legs, she had, none the less, an air of radiant, careless health. In vivid green and gold negligee and glistening brocaded mules, deep sunk in the big high-backed chair, against whose dark tapestry her sharply cut face, with skin like yellow satin, was distinctly outlined, she was – to use a hackneyed word – attractive.
However, as the plot and characters developed, the stories became more interesting and tense. One of my favorite passages from the book came in the middle of Quicksand, while the main character was at a dance club:
Helga sat looking curiously about her as the buzz of conversation ceased, strangled by the savage strains of music, and the crowd became a swirling mass. For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. . . . Africa, Europe, perhaps with a pinch of Asia, in a fantastic motley of ugliness and beauty, semibarbaric, sophisticated, exotic, were here. But she was blind to its charm, purposely aloof and a little contemptuous, and soon her interest in the moving mosaic waned.
Larsen’s writing did not have the drama and humanity of other, more famous, authors of that time, such as Zora Neale Hurston or Edith Wharton. To someone who vigorously enjoys writing from that time, I would recommend this book. For a more casual reader who is looking to read the best that period has to offer, there are better pieces to read.
3/6: more good than bad
Another review of the book: