from the Introduction by Erika Renée Williams So strong is the spell of beauty that there are those who, contradicting their own knowledge and experience, try to say that all is beauty. They are called optimists, and they lie. All is not beauty. Ugliness and hate and ill are here with all their contradiction and illogic; they will always be here [. . .] while beauty triumphs in its great completion – Death.
– W. E. B. Du Bois
In 1922, Nella Larsen Imes applied for admission to the New York Public Library School. On her application, for which she was asked to enumerate ten books she had recently read, Larsen named a slate of mostly white authors including Lytton Strachey and H. L. Mencken. A standout on her list was W. E. B. Du Bois’s Darkwater
(1920), which George Hutchinson rightly deems a “scathing modernist hybrid memoir and indictment of white America,” but which also contains some of Du Bois’s most lyrical prose. In its essay “Of Beauty and Death,” from which the above epigraph is drawn, Du Bois reflects upon the justifiable “pessimism” shared by many African Americans in the face of anti-Black racism’s persistence. Nevertheless, Du Bois avowed, African Americans must not yield to despair but must instead acknowledge the beauty to be everywhere divined – in sunsets, in music, in the abyss of the Grand Canyon, and even, counterintuitively, in the fact of death, which offers the compensatory gifts of “completion” and “perfection.”
Juxtaposing everyday struggles, failures, and instances of “ugliness” with unanticipated and uncommon moments of beauty was one of Nella Larsen’s greatest artistic skills. Thus, it is highly likely that she would have been inspired by Du Bois’s suggestion that beauty might not only counterbalance death but also – paradoxically – be one of its byproducts. To imagine such is to reframe death, not as an emblem of destruction, but rather, as a pathway to a novel form of reclamation.
Nowhere is the paradoxical entanglement of beauty and death more apparent than in Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing
, which recounts the plight of the tragically mixed-race Clare Kendry, whose beauty, although prodigious, is, from the outset of the novel, haunted by the inevitability of death. Orphaned when her mixed-race father is killed in a bar fight (and apparently, already lacking a mother), Clare Kendry is taken in by a pair of racist, religiously fundamentalist white aunts, who never let her forget that they view her as the ‘sinful’ descendant of the Bible’s Ham.
Determined to escape economic hardship and the accompanying racial alienation that pervade her childhood, Clare chooses racial passing as the mechanism with which to evade the pain of social death, reinventing herself as a wealthy white woman.
Yet a chance encounter on the rooftop of a Chicago hotel between Clare and her old childhood friend, Irene Redfield, the narrator, and central fi gure of Passing
, inspires in Clare the “wild desire” to return to her ethnic roots, to embark upon a new life in Harlem, and to abandon her racist white husband (and even her daughter) for a complex relationship with Irene and her husband Brian.
Scholars of the novel have focused on its depiction of Du Boisian “double consciousness,” the experience of racist alienation and the accompanying amplifi cation of perception, which shapes the psychic interiors of both women. Clare, who embarks upon what Larsen terms the “hazardous business” of passing, is armed with the tools of her beauty and audacity, while Irene, a would-be paragon of bourgeois respectability and race pride, struggles to contain both the collateral damage of her friend’s family drama and the shifting tides of her own emotions. For as contemporary critics including Deborah McDowell and Judith Butler have acknowledged, Passing
dared to explore – however subtly – the scope of homoerotic longing. When Clare and Irene gaze into one another’s eyes, it is not simply to successfully ‘read’ their racial ancestry but also, to explore the hidden nodes of their mutual, erotic, and taboo desires. Although Clare, with her “provocative” smile and “mesmeric” eyes) plays the part of the aggressive femme fatale
, relentlessly pursuing a relationship with her friend, the seemingly cautious and hesitant Irene is no less a willing if ambivalent participant in their “affair” (as Clare ironically describes their connection). For it is Irene who continually accepts Clare back into her life, despite stated intentions to do otherwise. And it is Irene who cannot contain the intrusion of her “. . . desire, [her] hope, that this parting wouldn’t be the last.”
On the one hand, Clare’s death, whether attributed to her husband’s vengeance upon learning that his wife is Black; to Irene’s well-placed “hand on Clare’s bare arm”; or even to Clare’s nihilistic self-abnegation, is decidedly not a thing of beauty, symbolizing society’s failure to break free of the tyrannies of caste and custom and perhaps also the novel’s failure to evade the tragic tone common to traditional narratives of passing. Yet on the other hand, Clare’s death may usher in the beautiful possibility of an antidote to the prosaic, provincial elements of a world strained to accommodate her complexity. For Clare’s death, even if it forecloses the novel’s potential to explode categorical imperatives, also marks an individual’s refusal to remain in a world on any but her own terms. Clare, through her silent repose and disquieting poise in the face of her husband’s bellowing, arguably offers the most emphatic final image if not the final
word of the novel: “Clare stood at the window, as composed as if everyone were not staring at her in curiosity and wonder, as if the whole structure of her life were not lying in fragments before her . . . There was even a faint smile on her full red lips and in her shining eyes.”
If the ending of Passing
attests to the incongruous beauty of death – in its offering of release, stillness, and an end to unremitting error, then the novel also suggests that death often lurks beneath the shimmering surface of beauty. For if beauty is too rigidly fi xed, whether by white supremacy, patriarchy, or consumer capitalism, then it risks too easily being made a prison – imposed from without as a manacle or from within as a mask. So too might a self who yields fully to the sway of public judgment produce only a routine and stale performance of character rather than a dynamic process of becoming.
Beauty and death also proceed in lockstep in Larsen’s first novel Quicksand
(1928), in which racism and race pride, aesthetic elegance and moral turpitude, and self-awareness and dissimulation conflict yet collude with one another. Often read as an autobiographical evocation of Larsen’s own struggles as the child of an interracial yet white-passing family determined to maintain its place in the Eurocentric environs of the U.S. Midwest, Quicksand
tells the story of how troubled and “attractive” Helga Crane, the child of a white Danish mother and a Black, West Indian father, tries unsuccessfully to resolve the many contradictions that emerge from her existing at the border between races, class positions, and national and international locales. An aesthete who cherishes her books, tchotchkes, and arrangements of fresh flowers, and who is determined to wear the brightly colored clothing and stylish accessories befitting the modernist ‘new woman,’
Helga Crane is, at the novel’s outset, at odds with the peculiar interplay of white accommodationist governance and Black respectability politics that powers the all-Black college, Naxos, where she teaches. Even after escaping the segregationist South and landing in presumably progressive Harlem, Helga Crane finds herself at pains to reconcile her strong aesthetic sensibility (exemplifying Zora Neale Hurston’s theory of an archetypal Black commitment to artistic expression that she termed “the will to adorn”) with the political imperative to be a good ‘race woman’: to be at ease within the insular echelons of the Black community and steadfast in her drive to uplift its members.
, the trope of beauty is mainly embodied as a vehicle for representation and a gauge of intersubjective value. For Helga’s earnest and sincere attempts to ‘find herself ’ turn on her being able to locate her “proper setting,” one that would showcase her worth and unique essence. Helga’s journey of self-discovery thus manifests in the main leitmotif of the novel: the act of flight – from place to place, from one limiting social scene to another that seems promising but inevitably disappoints, and always, from what Helga deems an ill-suited representational frame for her identity to one in which she might finally be illuminated and “appreciated” in kind.
Larsen shared much in common with the protagonist of her first novel: both were born in Chicago to a white Danish mother and a Black, West Indian father; both struggled to move from working-class to middle-class environments; both railed against convention; and both were unapologetic aesthetes. Yet unlike Helga, Nella was able to circumnavigate the limits of both the infrastructural and personal forms of racism, classism, far outpaced her literary creation. Indeed, Larsen found a way to have both Black and white artistic comrades (including Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten), to accommodate ideologically opposing positions (like segregation and integration), and to carve out multiple career paths for herself. She worked as a nurse at Tuskegee and New York’s Lincoln School for Nurses; as a trailblazing librarian at the New York Public Library; and fi nally, as a writer determined to ride the wave of burgeoning American interest in Black literature and culture, summed up by David Levering Lewis as occurring at a time when “Harlem was in vogue.”
In contrast to Larsen, Helga Crane, with no clear career goals, family, or iconoclastic peers to support her, chooses to exile herself in Copenhagen, a city where Larsen spent time with Danish relatives on her mother’s side between 1909 and 1912. Helga initially confuses the Danes’ interest in her Blackness for a cosmopolitan appreciation of her differential value. Yet she becomes disillusioned when the foppish painter Axel Olsen tries to commandeer her as both mistress and muse, painting a portrait of her as “some disgusting sensual creature with her features” and weaponizing thereby her loveliness and panache, which he attempts to reduce both to the iconography of exoticist primitivism and to his personal fetish. He also extends to her a disingenuous marriage proposal (only after she refuses his first, salacious offer). By rejecting Olsen on both counts, Helga succeeds in reclaiming herself, avoiding the privation of concubinage and moreover, asserting the righteousness of her own taste and judgment. She denounces his portrait as nothing more than “pure artistic bosh and conceit.”
Yet Helga is unable to sustain her preferred performance of identity. By the novel’s end, she returns to the U.S. South and abandons each of her provisional selves: the idealistic purveyor of uplift, the urbane race woman, and the exotic expatriate, both for the spiritual certainty of religion and the illusory security of conjugal romance. Neither protects her from a social death constituted by feelings of “asphyxiation.” Nor does the union of marriage and church prevent the degeneration of her body, perpetually placed in the service of childbirth. Only her old habit of aesthetic appreciation, reduced in the end to a mere embrace of reverie, recalls her once rebellious soul.
. . . .
Copyright © 2023 by Nella Larsen; Introduction by Erika Renée Williams. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.