Quicksand, Nella Larsen’s debut novel (published 1928) was not nearly as satisfying to me as her second one, Passing (published 1929), which I found a complex but intriguing look at race and repressed sexuality for a light-skinned “coloured” woman in New York during the Harlem Renaissance (thoughts here). Despite my frustrations with Quicksand, it is still a rewarding read, especially in its historical context as a defining novel of the Harlem Renaissance.
In Quicksand, mixed-race Helga Crane, like other protagonists in the Harlem Renaissance novels I’ve read, struggles to find her place in a racist world. The epigram at the beginning of the novel is from a poem (“Cross”) by Langston Hughes. It is an appropriate introduction to Helga’s personal struggle to find her place in the world:
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m going to die,
Being neither white nor black?
Helga is a woman without a family. Her black father abandoned her Danish mother shortly after Helga was born, and her mother had remarried a racist white man who wanted nothing to do with Helga. Helga’s only support is her mother’s brother, Peter, but as the novel opens, Helga discovers that he too has married a racist person, and Helga is no longer welcome at her uncle’s home. Thus begins Helga’s search for herself: she moves to Harlem, and then on to Denmark, searching for a people among whom she will feel comfortable to be herself.
These various settings for Helga’s search for herself provided a fascinating backdrop to Helga’s struggle. While the other Harlem Renaissance works I have read have addressed the issues Helga faces in Harlem and elsewhere in the United States, I had not yet read of the type of racism (a black woman as exotic) that Helga faces in Denmark. Although none of the situations, from the school where she taught to Harlem to Denmark and back to the USA, helped Helga grow to be comfortable with herself, these various settings provided an interesting dichotomy in the context of her story. What a confusing situation.
I wish I could say that Quicksand is a hopeful look at race and self-identity. Rather, it is a depressing account of one woman’s failure to find a place to belong. She wants to be seen as herself before being seen as a part of a race, and in her era, she fails to find that satisfaction anywhere. . The beginning, the middle, and the end of the novel are all hopeless, and I left the book dismayed that her life situations provided her with no escape. On the other hand, Helga made the choices that brought her to where she was in the end. I found the ending rushed and pessimistic, but that is, I think, just as Nella Larsen intended it to be. Helga got tired of trying to fit in; she made a choice so she would not need to face so many decisions everyday. This pessimism, much as I disliked it, certainly gave Quicksand a realistic feel. How many real women still end up in similar dead-end situations?