Academic journal article The Comparatist

Masks of Authenticity: Failed Quests for the People in Quicksand by Nella Larsen and the Silver Dove by Andrei Belyi

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Masks of Authenticity: Failed Quests for the People in Quicksand by Nella Larsen and the Silver Dove by Andrei Belyi

Article excerpt

Quicksand (1927) by Nella Larsen and The Silver Dove (1910) by Andrei Belyi focus on the failures of Helga Crane and Petr Dar'ial'skii, members respectively of African American and Russian elites, to make contact with the common people. As both of these intellectuals immerse themselves in the lower classes, they make a deliberate effort to refashion their identities in accordance with their notions of folk authenticity. After an initial period of self-delusion, however, their desire to join the people results in bitter disappointment. They try to escape their new, "authentic" lifestyles, but their failure to return to their original social milieu leads to feelings of entrapment and, ultimately, to their moral and physical destruction. In the end, the protagonists' failed quests serve to reveal the constructedness of racial and national identities and to challenge the associated discourses of racial and national authenticity.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, African American and Russian intellectuals had developed discourses of ethnic authenticity that relied on romantic notions of the rural folk. However, these discourses were challenged by social change, the relocation of rural populations, and the increased visibility of the changing folk culture. Both the migration of the rural Southern blacks after World War I to the Northern urban centers and the labor migration of Russian peasants to the industrializing cities during the last decades of the nineteenth century influenced the intelligentsia's perception of the lower classes. In Russia as well as in the U.S., the intellectuals' reaction to the new visibility of the poor can be characterized as a "moral panic," defined by Stanley Cohen as an episode in which part of the population responds briefly, suddenly, and intensely to some new feature of lower-class behavior (9). New forms of the popular culture and non-conformity of the lower classes undermined traditional notions of authenticity and ethnic identity. Written at the beginning of the twentieth century, these novels can both be situated in this context. In Quicksand and The Silver Dove, authenticity turns into a form of self-delusion or masquerade, while the lower-class body is represented through the imagery of minstrels or of an inscrutable mask. (1)

The Rural Folk as the Primitive

Quicksand focuses on the instability of racial identity and presents the tension between racial essentialism and the conception of race as a social construction. Quicksand dramatizes an unresolved tension between the seductions of consumerism, associated with whiteness, and the attraction of racial authenticity, represented by the black folk. Although Helga never passes for white, her geographic and social wandering is informed by the desire for material comfort and personal acceptance. Helga's desire for "authentic" racial identity at the end of the novel presents race as "the irresistible tie" (92) that ends her search for identity and results in her eventual death. In Quicksand, folk authenticity becomes related to essentialism, and even to primitivism. Paradoxically, Larsen both exposes the work of primitivism, especially in the Denmark section of the novel and, at the same time, subscribes to certain primitivist presentations of the folk. Chip Rhodes claims that primitivism can be seen as "the purest expression" of "ideological tension between performativity and essentialism" (17). This tension is vividly illustrated by discrepancies between the protagonist's performances in the Danish upper-class circles and the narrator's presentation of Helga's life among rural Alabama folk.

The text of Quicksand creates an uncanny connection between folk identity and forms of sexual expression that are often degraded. Deborah McDowell writes that Larsen's treatment of sexuality is linked to an imagery of descent and animalism, suggesting "inner degradation" (xxii). However, the same images that, according to McDowell, are connected to sexuality--the Harlem cabaret, the storefront church, and the deep South--are also associated with the black folk. …

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