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.