Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"You're Neither One Thing (n)or the Other": Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and the Passing Trope

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"You're Neither One Thing (n)or the Other": Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and the Passing Trope

Article excerpt

Philip Roth has always been placed in a male literary tradition, one that includes the likes of Henry James, Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud, among others. Over the past decade, since the publication of his novel The Human Stain (2000), critics have started situating him in an African American literary tradition as well. For example, Matthew Wilson elucidates the "surprising continuities" between Charles Chesnutt's and Philip Roth's narratives of passing (138). Some critics have also started tracing structural similarities between The Human Stain and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952).1 Roth himself reveals his fondness for Ellison in his autobiography The Facts (1988). While it is laudable that literary critics have been expanding the traditions that Roth fits in, they still overlook the ways in which he is in conversation with women writers. More specifically, they neglect to address the myriad connections between African American women writers and Roth. This omission is surprising, considering the recent critical trend of placing The Human Stain in an African American literary tradition of passing narratives-a tradition populated by many black women writers.2

Perhaps the most canonized text in this subgenre of literature is Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), which is the story of Clare Kendry's race shifting and her friendship with Irene Redfield. It is this novel that my paper analyzes alongside The Human Stain-a contemporary work on racial passing. This essay answers questions that have remained unanswered: What happens when Roth is placed in tandem with a female writer, not to prove arbitrary matters of influence or genealogies, but to define a critical tradition? More specifically, how can assessing two narratives of racial passing reveal the twentieth-century literary imagination of narrating phenotypically ambiguous bodies? On a thematic level, both novels are similarly preoccupied with passing-defined as "appear[ing] to belong to one or more social subgroups other than the one(s) to which one is normally assigned" (Moynihan 8). Yet Roth expands this definition by raising questions not only about race, but also about education, anonymity, and death-themes that form the underlying structure of the twentieth-century passing plot. My essay examines these themes by juxtaposing Passing with The Human Stain to argue that Roth revises the conventional passing narrative, a feat which critics have largely ignored. More specifically, this connection elucidates the life of the passing character, as one that begins with a race-less childhood and ends with ambiguous death. Regardless of the books' seven-decade separation and literary critics' inclination to limit these novels to their respective traditions, this article unites Passing and The Human Stain within the same genealogy.

Although my essay reads Roth alongside Larsen, there is no evidence that he has read her work. According to Roth, the plot of The Human Stain came from his time as a graduate student, when he dated a "Negro" girl from a family of "pale Negroes" who sometimes passed. Roth also says that he "never imagined" that hearing a firsthand account of passing would be a story for him decades later, yet the tale of "[s]elf-transformation. Self-invention. The alternative destiny. Repudiating the past" made "a lasting impression" on him (McGrath 8). The "impression" gleaned from this interview is that Roth's novel is based solely on his decades-old knowledge of passing and not on Larsen's novel. Yet his failure to admit reading any passing novels should not obviate the comparisons between his text and Larsen's, especially since his work revises basic elements of the tradition while revealing the plot trajectory common to it. Whether or not he has read Larsen is difficult to ascertain; more fruitful is what each novel highlights about the development of mixedraced bodies in twentieth-century literature.

Race Learning: Belated Realization of Blackness Leads to Passing

One key element that these two novels share is their reliance on the figure of the sheltered son to answer the basic question: Why do people pass? …

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