Nella Larsen and the Intertextual Geography of Quicksand

Article excerpt

Toward the middle of her 1928 novel Quicksand, Nella Larsen thematizes her authorial relation to the literary past in a scene that uncannily adumbrates the future demise of her career. Larsen's protagonist, Helga Crane, pores over the writing of her new employer, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, a prominent lecturer on "the race problem" who has hired Helga to edit her speeches. But the lectures, as Helga interprets them, "proved to be merely patchworks of others' speeches and opinions." As she puts her own hand to Mrs. Hayes-Rore's writing, in fact, Helga mentally accuses her employer of that most serious of authorial crimes:

Helga had heard other lecturers say the same things in Devon and again in Naxos. Ideas, phrases, and even whole sentences and paragraphs were lifted bodily from previous orations and published works of Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and other doctors of the race's ills. For variety Mrs. Hayes-Rore had seasoned hers with a peppery dash of Du Bois and a few vinegary statements of her own. Aside from these it was, Helga reflected, the same old thing. (70)

Helga's unspoken charge, of course, is plagiarism. Mrs. Hayes-Rore has taken "ideas, phrases, and even whole sentences and paragraphs" not only from "previous orations" but also from "published works," material copyrighted as the intellectual property of individual authors, whom Larsen names directly here to heighten the full effect of Helga's assessment. Indeed, Helga is able not only to recognize the specific sources of familiar ideas and language but even to distinguish Mrs. Hayes-Rore's original pronouncements from those she has appropriated.

Yet Helga proves to be mistaken in dismissing the resulting texts as "merely patchworks" of "the same old thing." As the implied comparison between the sensual pleasures of writing and cooking suggests, "a peppery dash of Du Bois" and a few new "vinegary statements" season the final speeches, in Larsen's culinary metaphor, to their own perfection. While Larsen may well have shared her protagonist's condescension toward "doctors of the race's ills," she seems nevertheless careful to suggest that Helga has underestimated the shrewd authorial figure who sits before her like "a cat watching its prey," eyes "bright and investigating," lit with a "humorous gleam." Busy "correcting and condensing," Helga overlooks the aggressive revisionist strategy behind the assimilation of familiar words, sentences, and paragraphs that characterizes her employer's writing (70). Helga misses the point of the "patchwork": the recirculation of ideas in different contexts, the recombination of authorial voices to new ends. And her fa ilure here to read for the range of possibilities made available by the "patchwork" is precisely what marks Larsen's allusion to her novel's own revisionary relation to prior texts-a relation that would, in Larsen's last published work, be misunderstood by her contemporaries as much as it was by her protagonist in Quicksand. In April, 1930, she was publicly accused of plagiarizing from the British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith to create the story "Sanctuary," an event that irreversibly devastated her authorial career.(1)

As a librarian, a self-fashioner through literary examples, and ultimately an alleged plagiarist, Larsen was indeed a committed revisionist- and perhaps the consummate revisionist not only of the Harlem Renaissance, with which she is most commonly associated, but also of a cultural moment in which American writers urgently sought to recover a national literary past. Quicksand was written and published during a period of intense American cultural nationalism that, as George Hutchinson has recently argued, represents a crucial but often overlooked context for interpretations of African American modernism (Harlem). Writing during what Ann Douglas has called the American "literary reclamation project" of the 1920s (194), Larsen made her authorial debut when the task of documenting American literary history was taken up with new urgency by leading intellectuals on the American scene, from the British expatriate D. …