Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Irreverent Intimacy: Nella Larsen's Revisions of Edith Wharton

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Irreverent Intimacy: Nella Larsen's Revisions of Edith Wharton

Article excerpt

As the biracial heroine of Nella Larsens Quicksand (1928) processes the racially offensive vaudeville stage scene that leaves her, in a fashionable Copenhagen audience, feeling "shamed," "betrayed," and "profoundly disquieted," an old nursery rhyme comes to her. "Hark! Hark!," goes the refrain, "The dogs do bark. / The beggars are coming to town. / Some in rags, / Some in tags, / And some in velvet gowns" (Larsen 2001,112, 113). Helga Crane pictures the American Negro dancers, demonstratively performing their ragtime numbers and yearning for applause, as not unlike the beggars of the rhyme. Witnessing the minstrel scene, she is repulsed by her people's "slavish imitation of traits not their own ... their constant begging to be considered as exact copies of other people." And yet, Helga returns, over and again, to the site of the crime, "always alone, gazing intently and solemnly at the gesticulating black figures, an ironical and silently speculative spectator." I want to suggest that Larsens vaudeville show eerily echoes, appropriates, and revises a racially disturbing moment from Edith Wharton's Twilight Sleep (1927). Wharton's Jazz Age novel describes a Harlem club scene, "all warm and jolly and inconsequent," wherein "black dancers tossed and capered like ripe fruits ..., black figs flung about in hot sunshine,... crimson bursts of laughter splitting open on white teeth" ([1927] 1997, 147). This essay will position the accomplished but still marginalized Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen (1891-1964) as an ironical but curious spectator much like her heroine, gazing solemnly and purposefully at American culture, and particularly black American culture, in the 1920s--a time in the United States when, to quote Langston Hughes, "the Negro was in vogue" (1940, 228). The essay will also propose that Larsen's position as such is thrown into sharp relief by her complicated literary relationship with Edith Wharton (1862-1937). By revealing Larsen's careerlong conversation with Wharton I argue that Larsen irreverently and deliberately appropriated and revised Wharton's work to an extent that has not been acknowledged. Working both intimately and critically with Wharton's plots, characters, themes, and, in many cases, turns of phrase, Larsen produces a literature that subtly undermines the making of "exact copies" or "slavish imitation[s]" of the works of one's literary predecessors. Moreover, Larsen employs the silently speculative gaze and authority afforded by her status as an African American writer who experienced firsthand Harlem in its heyday, in some instances adapting and revising white perspectives of racial reality.

Writers and critics have long theorized that American realism--the literary tradition with which Larsen would have associated Wharton--fell short of its intentions. Scholars of American literature know well William Dean Howells's assertion that the mode of representation known as realism ought to paint life as it is, that, as Howells implored, realism shall be "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material": "Let not the novelists, then, endeavor to add anything to reality, to turn it and twist it, to restrict it" (1889, 966). Larsen and other African American writers, however, suggest that literary realism as they knew it did indeed turn, twist, and restrict urban reality, and particularly the reality of race, and thus did not represent life as it was lived by many African Americans. Kenneth Warren's Black and White Strangers (1995) is particularly instructive in narrating this critical history. Warren evokes the popular view, famously articulated by Larzer Ziff, that "turn-of-the-century writers failed to confront directly the disturbing realities of an industrialized and urbanized American scene," but he adds that

   long before [Robert] Bone had largely dismissed the effects of
   realism on early African-American writers, ... Albion
   Tourgee--novelist, Reconstruction jurist, and counsel for the
   plaintiff in Plessy v. … 
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