Passing by Nell Larsen: Race, identity and the need to belong

Cover imageLast week I reviewed Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, promising that I’d write about Passing in a separate post. The novellas were written the late 1920s and have recently been reissued in a single volume. Both explore race and identity but while Quicksand is widely considered to be autobiographical there’s no suggestion that Passing is. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking book which explores the pain and dislocation of pretending to be what you aren’t and its awful consequences.

It begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Irene Redfield is a comfortably off middle class woman married to a doctor and visiting family in Chicago. Brought up by her father’s family when she was orphaned, Clare Kendry is the child of a white father – the janitor of the building in which both women spent their early years – and a black mother. Clare is married to a wealthy white man who has no idea of her parentage but she longs to move in black society. Irene wants to extricate herself from this deception but it seems that Clare’s need is too great. She will not be rebuffed, contacting Irene on her return to New York, determined to find a place for herself in Harlem society. As the novella progresses the dreadful consequences of Clare’s deception and her desperate need for kinship become increasingly apparent.

Told from Irene’s point of view, Passing explores identity, race and the overpowering need to belong in exquisite prose. Irene’s disquiet and eventual pain at Clare’s deception are vividly conveyed. The scene in which she meets Clare’s bigotted husband, unknowingly sharing his drawing-room with three black women, one of them his wife, is a darkly comic, excruciating triumph. As Passing works its way to its shocking conclusion, we’re privy to snapshots of Harlem society, glimpses into life as a black person in early twentieth-century America and the undeniable pull of racial identity in a society strictly divided along racial lines. While Quicksand is a sobering novella, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s. Bravo, Serpent’s Tail for reissuing these two gems.

15 thoughts on “Passing by Nell Larsen: Race, identity and the need to belong”

    1. Long enough ago to have forgotten it, Helen, sad to say! I’m sure you’d like the Larsen – sobering reading but beautifully expressed.

  1. Sounds an interesting book, Susan. I find the whole concept of “passing” really fascinating. It’s perhaps most extreme in relation to race but also applies to class and sexuality. Fortunately it’s less of an issue nowadays than it used to be.
    Helen’s flagging of Home in this context is helpful to me – I never understood what that novel was supposed to be about and founded a gruelling read. Seems marginally more comprehensible to view it as about passing.

    1. You’re absolutely right about class and sexuality, Anne. I think much progress has been made in all these areas in the Western world but Larsen’s book is a useful reminder that we still have a long way to go. Excellent food for thought from Helen!

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words, Jessica, and sorry! Well, not really… I hope you find that theses two are well worth a place on your shelves when you get around to them.

  2. Very interesting review, Susan. I’m trying to hold off from buying too many books at the moment (famous last words), but I’ve made a note of this one. I’d heard of Nella Larsen, but I haven’t seen any other reviews of these novellas; thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. I’m all too familiar with those resolutions! I hadn’t heard of Nella Larsen before I’d read these. I hope they’ll get a little more attention – they certainly deserve it.

  3. Have you read the second book in Mildred Taylor’s series for children, ‘Let the Circle be Unbroken’? It deals with the same issue at around the same time. The series, which starts with ‘Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry’, is superb and ought to be on every school library shelves.

    1. Thanks for this, Alex. I’d heard of Roll of Thunder but not Let the Circle. I’ll look out for them. I’d love to see the Larsen get more attention – I haven’t seen it reviewed at all. Still very important issues today.

  4. Pingback: A Life In Books | A Separate Peace: Hard lessons in life

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