Thursday, 4 February 2010


Today I would like to welcome The Classics Circuit to my blog as one of the stops in the Harlem Renaissance Tour. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement of literary and artistic expression during the 1920s and 30s that sprang up amongst the African American population of Harlem, New York. I studied the period of "awakening" a little whilst at University and discovered Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay; Nella Larsen's novels, Quicksand and Passing, were (and remain) critically acclaimed and significant novels of the movement. I have had Passing on my wish-list for some time but as it was a popular choice for the tour and as the volume I have contains both of the short works, I decided to review her first novel, Quicksand; I shall post my thoughts on Passing later in the tour.

***warning: this review contains spoilers in last paragraph***

Loosely autobiographical, Quicksand tells the story of Helga Crane, a young mulatto (mixed race) woman whose Danish immigrant mother is dead and whose father abandoned her and her mother, when Helga was a baby. Helga has "no people"; she was uncomfortable with her resentful white stepfather and step-siblings; her uncle Peter who rescued her as a child and sent her to school, disowns her as he has taken a wife who will not accept being aunt to a girl of another race; her Danish aunt and uncle, whom she later lives with in Copenhagen, use her to elevate their social status, as she is unique and exotic amongst their society. Before Helga goes to Denmark she lives in Harlem where her friends are focused -often hypocritically- on the "race question"; Helga does not identify with this group, with this race, until she is later racially alone in Copenhagen (the quotes below demonstrate this shift in perception). Quicksand is about Helga never fitting in or belonging, from the Naxos school where she teaches in the novel's opening to the small Alabama town where her husband is Preacher, in its close.

Helga is not a sympathetic character and is quite unpleasant; she is impulsive and often takes offense to people in frustrating ways. What I became to understand though was that Helga's transitory shifts in emotion, often of anger and irritation, are representative of a woman guided by her passions. Quicksand is regarded as the first novel to give a voice to the sexual desires of a black women but this theme of the novel was too subtle for me -probably by today's standards- yet the passionate reactions, if viewed as representative of her sexual desire and discontent, can be charted throughout the novel. Other symbolism that stood out to me was Helga's desire early on to wear bright colours, to complement her skin, but she was told it was unbecoming for a black woman; later, in Denmark, Helga is encouraged by her Aunt Katrina to wear colourful dresses and at first Helga rails against it as she has been conditioned to dress and behave appropriately. It is Helga's defiance against any categorisation, as a woman or as a person of colour, that makes Quicksand a revolutionary novel of its time; she seeks fulfillment from each of the communities and roles that she moves through, finding none. Furthermore, there are some very interesting passages on race, miscegenation and eugenics that are insightful and challenging to read; in both its treatment of sexuality and race, the text reminds me of some of the short stories and novella, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.

Helga's finding -and then losing- of religion and her subsequent hasty marriage and new-found motherhood in the last chapters didn't originally work for me in relation to the other defined sections of the novel -Naxos; Chicago; Harlem; Copenhagen; Harlem- but the ending resonated. In Quicksand's close, Helga lies ill after the birth and death of her fourth child, planning her escape from this imprisoning life, but the novel suddenly ends with the pregnancy of her fifth child; it was in the closing lines that Quicksand truly became a novel about the women question as much as it was about the race one.

Outside, rain had begun to fall. She walked bare-headed, bitter with self-reproach. But she rejoiced too. She didn't, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people. She was different. She felt it. It wasn't merely a matter of color. It was something broader, deeper, that made folk kin.

Helga Crane didn't, however, think often of America, excepting in unfavorable contrast to Denmark. For she had resolved never to return to the existence of ignominy which the New World of opportunity and promise forced upon Negroes. How stupid she had been ever to have thought that she could marry and perhaps have children in a land where every dark child was handicapped at the start by the shroud of color! She saw, suddenly, the giving birth to little, helpless, unprotesting Negro children as a sin, an unforgivable outrage. More black folk to suffer indignities. More dark bodies for mobs to lynch. No, Helga Crane didn't think often of America. It was too humiliating, too disturbing.


verity said...

What an intriguing read. I was quite unaware of the Harlem renaissance until you mentioned it in connection with me reading Their eyes were watching God. Hopefully my biography of Hurston will tell me more about it.

Bloomsbury Bell said...

This sounds interesting - I am going to New York in April so need to start thinking about my holiday reading!

Anonymous said...

I read Passing yesterday and did enjoy it so I'll be excited to see what you thought of it. I didn't read your review (thank you for the spoiler alert) of Quicksand because I have it on my shelf to read soon. I love reading about the Harlem Renaissance and will have to check out the tour.

Rebecca Reid said...

"probably by today's standards" interesting how cutting edge is no longer cutting edge -- that's why someone has to go to the edge in the first place I guess.

It seems so much of the Harlem Renaissance literature is about so much more than race. It really puts the era in perspective when we hear about a women issue novel like this too....not just a race issue novel.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I'm sure the Hurston biography will tell you more; I didn't want to write a lengthy recap of it as Rebecca has done that on the Classics Circuit site. There was a Zora event at the Women's Library last week that I wanted to attend but it was the same night as book group :(.

Naomi, I am so envious of your trip to New York! It is my destination #1. May I suggest The Group and Breakfast at Tiffany's? I love planning holiday reading.
Quicksand is very interesting.

Danielle, I'm pleased to hear that you enjoyed Passing and plan to read it today. Hope you enjoy the tour and it's only my last paragraph that has spoilers really but best to read it once you've read book.

Rebecca, exactly: novels like this one raised the bar and what may have seemed provocative to readers eighty years ago isn't to us because changes came.

I agree that the Harlem Renaissance literature that I have read so far isn't just about race but is political in so many ways.

Thanks for hosting such an interesting tour!

Jodie said...

This is a great tour stop and yet anothre book to add to my list. I think there's a lot of what one blogger recently called double diversity in literature from this time, as womens rights and gay rights started to emerge alongside racial politics.

Paperback Reader said...

Jodie, that's a very good way of putting it. I love literature from this era because it mainly deals with the issues, all of which are still pertinent today.

Aarti said...

Yay for the classics circuit! I don't know if this book appeals to me from an enjoyment perspective, but maybe from a learning perspective it would. I should be getting my book for this tour soon, though I won't be reading it for some time. I'm looking forward to all the reviews, though, to open my eyes to a lot of great authors!

Paperback Reader said...

Aarti, I didn't enjoy the book but did find it very interesting; I wonder whether I will feel the same about Passing. The Circuit provides great insight into such a variety of texts from a movement or writer that otherwise would probably have remained obscure to us as we instinctively go for the more popular text from the oeuvre or era instead.

Anonymous said...

i ve not read this ,and am slowly working through maupassants shorts at moment thats enough classic french lit for me at moment

Paperback Reader said...

Stu, I'm guessing that your comment was meant for Dangerous Liaisons? I haven't read any Maupassant yet but do intend to.

susan said...

I read this. We had quite a discussion about it but I confess I'd need to reread it before saying much.

There's a great reference title by Gale on the Harlem Renaissance. Anyone who enjoys reading big, bulky reference books would find it very helpful and informative. I like Gale titles because generally I find them as engaging as the literature.

Paperback Reader said...

Susan, thanks for the recommendation. This is a though-provoking book and does prompt many discussion points.