Race Passing and American Individualism

By Kathleen Pfeiffer | Go to book overview

6
Reading Passing through a Different Lens

Though critics regularly pair Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen in a kind of literary racial sisterhood,1 considerable evidence undermines the most earnest attempts to align them. It is true that they, along with Zora Neale Hurston, were the most prolific women novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, yet it is equally important to note that Fauset and Larsen moved in different social circles, they came from different backgrounds, and they maintained very different attitudes toward race. Their differences are perhaps most evident in a number of significant contrasts that can be drawn between Fauset's 1928 Plum Bun and Larsen's 1929 Passing, novels of passing that tend to be their most oftcited works. These two novels not only illustrate and underscore the extent of their authors' biographical, literary, and philosophical differences, they provide strikingly parallel markers through which to examine the contrast. The year Plum Bun was published, for instance, Jessie Fauset married; in the year Passing was published, Nella Larsen contemplated divorce. Plum Bun employs tropes and narrative strategies evocative of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, whereas the aesthetic sensibilities in Passing are decidedly modernist. In many other ways, both within the texts and without, Passing reverses Plum Bun's most explicit claims about identity, community, and the role of race as a signifying category in the early twentieth century.

Passing contains no instance of biological or familial sisterhood; rather, it depicts the tense and duplicitous relationship between two women, Irene Redfield, a cultivated, privileged, light-skinned black woman and Clare Kendry, a childhood friend of Irene's who has spent her entire adult life passing for white. After the two are reunited, Clare

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1
This is perhaps most explicitly articulated by Thadious M. Davis's biography of Larsen, who identifies Fauset as “one of [Larsen's] role models” (142) and asserts that she “saw in Fauset a reflection of the accomplished woman that she herself wanted, and intended to be” (143).

-128-

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Race Passing and American Individualism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Passing and the Sentiment Novel 18
  • 2 - Passing and the Rise of Realism 39
  • 3 - Passing and the Fictional Autobiography 58
  • 4 - Passing and the “fast Yellowing Manuscripts” 82
  • 5 - Passing and the Rise of Mass Culture 107
  • 6 - Reading Passing Through a Different Lens 128
  • Epilogue: Passing in the Present 147
  • Acknowledgments 153
  • Works Cited 155
  • Index 163
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