Book of the month: Quicksand by Nella Larsen.


Referred to as a “tragic mulatto tale,” an accurate description, yet one that has never interested me, Quicksand by Nella Larsen is about the most frustrating black female lead I’ve ever read–Helga Crane. She’s a woman whose eccentricities today, I imagine, would be imitated and fawned over. Her described beauty would be put on magazine covers and her style called things like “classic” and “funky,” “retro” and “vintage.”

But really Quicksand is about female sexuality and identity, and the desire to express those things without compunction. It’s also about passion and security, and pitting those two elements against each other, as literature often does, as if they can’t naturally exist together. Can they?

In the introduction to the American Women Writers edition which pairs Larsen’s two novels Quicksand and Passing, editor Deborah E. McDowell remarks on the push and pull between identity and sexuality indicated by the protagonist’s fate and Larsen’s propensity towards ambiguous and unhappy endings. McDowell says: “these unearned and unsettling endings sacrifice strong and emerging independent female identities to the most acceptable demands of literary and social history.”

What are the acceptable demands? And who dictates them? And who loses? Does anyone?

These queries remain hotly debated today. Just this week, CBS premiered its new show, The Good Wife, which follows the life of a humiliated political wife—Clinton, Swinton, Edwards and Sanford. In Larsen’s work, we don’t get to see the aftermath and there’s certainly not the element of race, but aren’t we asking the same types of questions?

Larsen, who gained critical acclaim from her two novels, never recovered professionally from a plagiarism scandal. She died in obscurity in Brooklyn.

We will be discussing the book on October 15th.

Happy Reading.

  • steve

    I’ve never read Quicksand, only Passing. I think you guys should read this .

    It’s problematic but interesting…and quite “post bourgie” LOL.

  • mute

    that’s interesting to me that someone would say that. I’d think of “Sarah Phillips” as totally bougie. But then again, I never did have a firm grasp on what was meant by post bourgie anyway.

    I had a strong negative reaction to the book. I know why, but I never really parsed it out. Yea, that might be a good pick.

  • steve

    LOL maybe its more “bourgie” than post bourgie…but its one of the few books that tries to understand what “bourgie” is.

    It’s very problematic… but I feel like there isnt really another novel like it. My Af-Am lit professor wrote a scathing critique of that book and she is refuted all throughout the introduction LOL. She assigned it to us anyways saying she feel like she’s eventually come to accept the book she just felt it didn’t go far enough and fell short.

  • Nella Larsen is hugely important to me in my development as a writer. Like Larsen, I am black and Danish, and write about the intersections between race and class and culture. I agree that Quicksand is a book, in part, about sexuality and identity–but it is also about biracial and bicultural identity. George Hutchinson wrote a hugely important and comprehensive biography of her published in 2006–it’s a great read and a good entry point for people reading Larsen today. I consider Nella Larsen my literary muse — and felt a great honor in being able to install a headstone on what had been until two years ago — unmarked. Thank you for bringing her work to the attention of more readers!