I’m fairly ignorant about the Harlem Renaissance, but I do know it’s produced one of my top New York writers from this trip. I had initially been a little concerned that Larsen’s stories might be famous because of the period they depict, rather than because of her writing skill. An unworthy thought, but one I always have to fight when literature deals with major issues or theories. In this case it was purely a case of my own ignorance. Larsen would be remembered today whatever her subject matter, the fact that she used literature to present such a fascinating period in New York history only makes her more engrossing.
I saw I was in safe hands from very early on. The first story begins with a party, ‘young men, old men, young women, older women, slim girls, fat women, thin men, stout men, glided by.’ The visusal sense, compounded with the carefully-chosen, delicately-inflected adjectives promised great things.
Larsen’s stories are as perceptive and unsentimental as the above quotation suggests. They deal with those on the outside, or near the outside, of society. Negro society that is, these are contemporary works that are firmly rooted in a specific culturla milieu. The salons of the Harlen Renaissance play a large role and, however much some characters wish to ignore the ‘race problem‘ they can only hide from it within the said salons and highly resticted zones of specific cities.
The first novella in the collection, ‘Quicksand’ follows the adventures of Helga Crane as she tries to find her place in the world. We first encounter her as a teacher in the south, apparently Naxos is ‘the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country.’ A visiting white preacher ‘dared any Northerner to come south and look upon this great institution to say that the Southerner mistreated the Negro … if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them.’ Helga soon escapes to the North, but she’s a fully rounded character, not an ideological puppet and eventually even Harlem palls on her. She is restless and confined, dissatisfied with the dogmatic political freedom offered by New York. The third location in the book is Denmark, apparently free from the ‘race problem’ and a world in which Helga can rule as an exotic celebrity. This isn’t where the story ends however, as the title suggests, it’s hard to think where Helga will be able to settle. Of mixed heritage and no fixed abode she embodies issues around race, but also resembles Daniel Deronda’s Gwendolyn Harleth or Carol Milford from Sinclaire Lewis’s ‘Main Street’; she’s a complex literary heroine in her own right.
I liked ‘Quicksand’ and I loved ‘Passing’, the other novella in the collection. For the uninitiated, the title refers the custom of ‘passing’ as white. The main character in the story does so on occasion, for example, to be able to get a taxi or sit in a hotel restaurant. It could never be more sustained because ‘her husband … couldn’t exactly “pass”.’ The central figure in the novella on the other hand is married to a white man, a racist bigot, who must never learn of her official race. In some fictions it may be easy to keep such secrets, but not in Larsen’s world. The revelation however won’t come through accidents but through character. Larsen’s protagonists fight inwardly and outwardly against the labels that surround them, desperately trying to gain authenticity and have agency within lives that are so far beyond their control.
This has been a brief but wonderful introduction to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and I heartily recommend Larsen’s stories, whether or not you’re interested in the specific historical context. They are rich and complex and poignant, exemplfying how fiction can be both personal and political.
My next job is to discover Larsen’s literary Harlen Renaissance peers … suggestion are very welcome!