Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"Theory and Practice: Nella Larsen’s Novels in the Hungarian Classroom" by Eva Federmayer

Eva Federmayer is Associate Professor of American Studies at the Institute of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged, and at the School of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. Her main areas of research and teaching are African American literature and culture, cultural studies, ecocriticism, and gender studies. Besides publishing on Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Octavia Butler, Oscar Micheaux, Danzy Senna, ragtime, Hungarian home design, and the American presidential election, she is the author of Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism (1983) and the editor and co-author of the electronic textbook, Netting America (2006). Email:

For the past fifteen years I have taught Nella Larsen’s novels in both universities where I give courses in American literature. These novels are exceptionally popular and my classes have been unusually vigorous, bubbling with enthusiastic discussions. Besides the foreign students from European universities on the Erasmus exchange program and from the United States of America and Israel (typically majoring in psychology), my students are undergraduate and graduate students, young women and men who are white and from the (lower) middle-class, with no specific experience with or knowledge of African American culture other than black popular culture transmitted by the media. They are mostly non-native speakers majoring in English or American Studies, normally having a good command of English. Not only ambitious to take extra assignments on issues that spill over from one class to the other, a steadily growing number of these students have also exhibited even deeper academic interest in Larsen, choosing her novels the subject matter of their master’s theses. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the pitfalls of interpretation awaiting my students and myself over the years when Quicksand or Passing is put on the syllabus have become visible. Since my students have a tendency to gravitate to “readerly texts,” to use Roland Barthes’ term for texts that sidestep the challenge to entrenched subject positions, Larsen seems to be a wonderful tool for guiding them to “writerly” texts. What is to follow is a discussion of a set of theories and tactics I use in the classroom to get students to probe the complexities of Nella Larsen’s novels.1

The presence of Nella Larsen on undergraduate and graduate course syllabi speaks to the dramatic changes English and American studies have been undergoing since the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, when the beginning of Hungary’s economic and political restructuring also entailed substantive changes in higher education, including the institutional beginnings of American Studies (Federmayer, American Studies in Hungary, n. pag.) Catching up with the sustained American interest in recanonization and curriculum reform, the typical Hungarian university classroom was also beginning to grapple with issues of race, ethnicity, class, and gender, due to the quick introduction of pioneering anthologies (such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 1985; Paul Lauter’s Heath Anthology of American Literature, 1990; Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nelly McKay’s Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 1997) that provided a shortcut for Hungarian students and instructors to perceive and utilize long-standing American debates on our home turf. In short, the time when these major anthologies predicated on multiculturalism appeared, it happily coincided with the first Hungarian efforts toward political and educational multivocity, also paving the way for the reception of freshly canonized African American women authors such as Nella Larsen. Hungarian interest in the expanding multiracial and multicultural American canon has also been buttressed by identity studies that embraced narratives of nationality intricately intertwined with narratives of race and ethnicity published in English (Anderson 1983, Hobsbawm, Ranger 1992; Werbner, Ranger 1996, etc.). “Race,” inclusive of the category of “white” put on center-stage in American literary studies scholarship, has highlighted narratives of a racialist society (Frankenberg 1997, Sollors, Diedrich 1995, Singh, Schmidt 2000) which, from the very beginning, sought to define itself in racial terms “as a race apart, both from Europeans without and the blacks and Indians within the new nation” (Gardner xi).

To situate the theme of teaching Nella Larsen in a Hungarian context demands a brief, even if rash overview of the vocabulary of “otherness” we use in our everyday communication, including the students coming to my classes. “Ethnic/racial minority” or “race” has a different ring in Hungary and biracial/multiracial concerns do not constitute a major aspect of our culture. The term “ethnic minority” outside the academia is usually associated with ethnic Hungarians (or Hungarian minorities) having to live beyond the national borders of Hungary in accord with the Treaty of Trianon after World War I when Hungary was truncated by two-thirds of its territories, losing 3.3 million of its Hungarian population to the neighboring countries. “Ethnicity” in Hungarian street slang is typically applied as a euphemism to Gypsies, with a racist baggage of connotations. Confusion about the terms “majority” and “minority,” as well as their implications has been indicated recently by an infamous ruling of a local court in Northeastern Hungary charging Gypsies with an assault against “the Hungarian community,” a legal nonsense, since “community” designates protected minority within a nation, which the Hungarian nation and Hungarians at large are not. Though the European Union is challenged by migration and internal conflicts, “European identity” is still a highly charged concept fuelled with white fantasies in a colored Europe (stretching as far as, say, Guadelopue, a district of France)2 on which, one way or another, Hungarian governments have monopolized to advance their goals in domestic politics.

Even if superiority and privilege linked to “whiteness” or “Europeanness” might not lend themselves so easily to East European identity constructions as some critical race studies or postcolonial studies scholars may summarily assume overseas, the issue of our power-inflected whiteness comes to the fore when we read African American literature in my Budapest or Szeged classes. Our positionality informed by geographical location, cultural space and institutional frameworks inevitably renders us as “white” readers of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing which problematizes the very whiteness of our skin and culture. This usually takes place even if initially my Hungarian students, never exposed to racial segregation or discrimination (none of them have been, over the years, from the Hungarian Roma population), quickly exclude themselves from the cultural space of American racism, assumed to exist only “out there,” by automatically taking sides with the victim of racism and quickly denouncing racism at large. I appreciate my students’ empathy but I try to dislodge their adherence to victimology and black hagiography respectively not only because they tend to be reductive; subscribing to the binary of black and white, victim and oppressor, these young people also seem to reinscribe, by stealth, their unreflected position on normative whiteness.

While my students have a tendency to focus only on issues of character development and personal conflicts when we start dealing with Larsen, the first sign of genuine response to Quicksand or Passing is always bound to occur later, surfacing in an upsurge of emotions. Students give voice to highly charged opinions colored by white liberal guilt when commenting on Helga’s humiliation at the hands of her uncle and his wife in Quicksand, or on racist John Bellew’s arrogance in the painfully hilarious passing scene of Passing. These student reactions ordinarily issue from a cognitive dissonance experienced as a sudden alienation from their cultural/racial/ethnic identity that Homi Bhabha (as Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg reminds us) aptly claims to be the very moment of culture manifesting itself at its boundaries. Accordingly, a culture is inconceivable by itself without its difference from, even clashing with, the other: “a culture really only announces itself, or becomes problematic and painful, at the moment of its encounter with a different culture” (Bhabha 34). Referring my students to Bhabha’s statement, I seek to capture as well as convert cognitive dissonance into an intellectual argument, intending to help them with skills of self-awareness. On this point, I cannot but agree with Rafael Pérez-Torres, who embraces the idea of “inclusive pedagogy,” suggesting that “raising the problems of racial construction to the class . . . may help lead to an engaged and inclusive pedagogy that does not blame or assign guilt to any member of the class” (25).

Another reason for seeking to resituate Larsen’s biracial female characters beyond white comfort zones is to do justice to their complexities. Quicksand’s Helga Crane, for instance, is far from being a tragic mulatta character (though her traditional figuration is evoked by the text) as usually seen at first by Hungarian students. On the contrary, the novel intimates her huge potential for inventing herself as a modern woman against all odds. In order to capture this aspect of the female character, we usually sketch out the spatial and temporal elements in the book that conjure up (or repeat) the European picaresque tradition as well as the American slave narratives, both constituted of loosely woven linear narrative sequences held together by the traveling hero/heroine. Not only frantically moving “from one place to another in pursuit of an environment which allows her free expression” (288), as a modern woman, or New (Negro) Woman, Helga is also adamant about experimenting with new opportunities to reshape her life.

From this perspective it has been rewarding to get students to compare Larsen’s Quicksand with Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), the two books published only 3 years apart, both focusing on the representation of modernity, modern white masculinity and biracial femininity respectively. To guide my students toward a focused group discussion on similarities and differences in an undergraduate seminar, I write the buzzwords gender, race, and class on top of the chalkboard and put the names of the respective protagonists, Jay Gatsby and Helga Crane, below on the left and the right to help organize ideas. We usually agree that although the books have major differences, both novels weave a narrative about self-invention. In Fitzgerald, Gatz, the poor German immigrant, a nobody from nowhere, successfully “fathers” himself into a mythical Gatsby through a self-begetting narrative. This project turns out to be so successful that notwithstanding the narrator Nick Carraway’s dismantling of his awesome stature, white Gatsby eventually rises to become an allegory of the American Dream. In stark contrast to Gatz, who has a father still alive (though at the fictional level he is as good as non-existent for the son), Larsen’s Helga Crane is entirely alone. She is not only “between races,” but also illegitimate and orphaned; furthermore, her only American relative, her white uncle, severs relations with her. In spite of her theoretically better chances for agency, she seeks in vain to “mother herself into being.” (Federmayer, The New Negro Woman, 119).

In this context, Helga Crane’s repeated attempts to construct her modern biracial female identity can also be read as her sustained resistance to and the ultimately tragic repetition of her mother’s romance that plots her life. I find it useful at this point to get my students to discuss in small groups the implications of the short comment on the mother who abandoned her as well as gave up her life in a blind passion for a man, “risking all in one blind surrender” (23). Rather than risking a “blind surrender” herself, however, Helga repeatedly snaps herself out of “asphyxiating” situations when, unlike her mother, she discovers the limitations of her partners and her imminent confinement under their protective wings. Prodded to recognize correspondences between geographical places and social spaces, students usually find that each narrative sequence is defined by a specific geographical place and a social space with a male character at the center (Naxos—James Vayle and Robert Anderson; Harlem—some “alluring brown and yellow men;” Copenhagen—Axel Olsen; Harlem—Robert Anderson; Alabama—Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green) that Helga repeatedly seeks to relate to with unabated enthusiasm; indeed, she always plunges into an allegedly new experience that lures her with the charms of a fairy tale. Except for the final trap, however, each of her failed attempts to inscript herself into a freely chosen self-narrative ends with her reactions rendered in terms of intense intellectual and physical revulsion, the narrator thus indicating Helga’s resistance to closure, and her subversively modern ambition, to “write her life beyond the ending” (Rachel Blau DuPlessis).

In graduate courses our discussion takes a more academic direction along this line, guided by the analysis of Helga’s representation as a contested site of racial and gender investments. By close reading Larsen’s text, we point out the rhetorical devices of repetition and inversion that structure the novel and inform the dramatic coda, the concluding paragraph. We delve into the intricacies of the text to find out about the discrepancy between the fairy-tale of female desire and the harsh reality of (black) female existence, a theme that imbricates into the mother-daughter dynamics of the novel. Helga’s effort to resist her mother’s narrative of “blind love” also links to the recurring theme of entrapment/asphyxiation as well as to the cultural icon of the “tragic mulatta,” the trope of entrapment, that Larsen picks up and problematizes in the context of modernity. Based on selected readings from John Riviere, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, and Judith Butler, we discuss masquerade as a concept that echoes significantly in African American culture as a repetitive performance of negotiating black presence and resistence in a socio-cultural terrain dominated by white supremacy. Enlarging on masquerade as a repetitive, performative and discursive production of difference, I urge my students to probe Larsen’s text to notice distinct implications of masquerade played out by the dynamics of the narrative and we usually agree at least on three, such as textual masquerade (the masquerading author), gender masquerade (masquerading femininity/masculinity), and racial masquerade (whiteness/blackness as passing for white/passing for black).

My students frequently read Quicksand as Nella Larsen’s autobiography, a story of her own life, no matter how fictionalized. Especially undergraduates like drawing a parallel between fictional character and author, between Helga Crane and Nella Larsen, stressing the similarities of their biracial origin, the Danish family connection, and the Copenhagen experience. Understandably unfamiliar with the subtleties of cultural codes that even commodified black American popular culture such as hip hop carries, Hungarians in general automatically endow these performances with a documentary quality, as if they were to represent black life in the United States. The temptation is particularly great when we read stories at the crossroads of fact and fiction, such as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, or Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, for that matter, where the narrative is also conveyed in an arguably personal, even confessional voice.

Agreeing with Barbara Foley, Valéry Smith herself seems to corroborate the Hungarian hunch (though for another reason) about African American writers’ preoccupation with facticity, or with the deep-seated “documentary mode,” calling it “part of the legacy that slave narrators bequeathed to subsequent generations of African-American writers”(56). However, Valéry Smith’s argument in “The Documentary Impulse in Contemporary African-American Film” takes a different turn, claiming that not only fiction but facticity can also be a matter of construction. She suggests that “certain narrative films construct themselves as part of a widely shared and widely recognizable reality” and that “critics and reviewers participate in such constructions.” Furthermore, she also draws attention to black-directed documentaries that “gesture toward the fictional or the artificial in an attempt to enter suppressed narratives into public discourse” (57).

Since I seek to integrate black directed films on black American life into my courses teaching African American literature—time and course design permitting, I have found Oscar Micheaux’ Within Our Gates (1919), Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) instrumental in helping us better understand aspects of black male sexuality, inner city race relations, and ’other’ traditions in African American culture—Valéry Smith’s article doubly benefits us. After I bring up and clarify these fairly high-level concepts of the “real” and the “fictional” in a short lecture, I usually find that most of the students in my class will be more sensitive to the problem of the constructedness of texts, filmic and literary. Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing are informed not only by personal involvement but also by larger structures, indeed, by power structures that inscribe even the cultural space of the confessionary documentary. When encouraging students to identify the character whose voice and perspective dominate the novel (also asking them to provide proof from the text to support their assumption), they unmistakably single out Mrs. Redfield. After sensitized to that aspect of Passing, even younger students can formulate a near-professional claim, such as a young woman did last year when she stated that the novel easily yields itself as Irene Redfield’s personal narrative, she being the focalizer of the novel from the beginning to the end. In graduate classes I briefly point out that this final text whereby readers usually identify this novel is, in fact, the second version of the first edition’s third printing so we look into the two versions and discuss the textual politics of their respective endings.3

No matter how intimate and personal, the novel is, however, far from being autobiographical in any way, even if the pull of the confessional is strong for reader and writer alike. As David Van Leer points out, it is typically the discursive position of the autobiographical narrative that hegemonic culture traditionally permits minorities to enter in order to voice their subjectivity. Adhering to this discursive-generic location, they demonstrate the “burden of self-presentation,” that is, the ontological thrust of the minority narrative predicated on the claim that “though neither rich nor famous, I too exist” (166). Though middle-class, apparently self-conscious and capable of passing for white privilege, Irene’s is such a typical minority voice infused by grave concerns about her life as black and woman, indeed, a frustrated wife at that.

Despite a certain amount of facticity reminding the reader of its author, even Larsen’s Quicksand is no autobiography. The novel has a textual strategy to construct the ‘real,’ a recognizable reality of the 1920s through the experiences of a biracial woman, but its documentary impulse is largely an ascription, that of the readers, in this case, my students, responding from their hegemonic white space to a multiply minority discourse that aspires to voice, subjectivity, indeed, to an unconventional female subjectivity. At this juncture I have found it instrumental in enlarging in a short lecture on minority autofiction and/or autobiography to allow students to have at least a glimpse of a larger picture. To illustrate my point, I also bring in a few books from the campus library and from my own by contemporary black women writers, such as Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994), Jamaica Kincaid (The Autobiography of My Mother, 1996), Danzy Senna (Caucasia, 1998), and Rebecca Walker (Black, White, and Jewish, 2001) who took considerable measures to revise the traditional cultural space allotted to the representation of minority subjectivities.

The cultural space available for minority voices inevitably brings up the issue of gender in the classroom, which I always find a great challenge: gender affects discussions, indeed, determines the issues and the procedure of the class. It is not only that young women seem to be more responsive to the conflicts typical of female lives than their fellow male students; they resonate more deeply with the racial imbrications of femininity that are at stake in passing. Nevertheless, passing as a complex cultural performance of race, gender, and class seems to trigger exciting discussions regardless of the number and maturity of the gendered subjects involved. My objective on this point is usually to sketch out a few ideas for students that they can creatively apply themselves in their own interpretation of Larsen’s Passing. I find it useful, for example, to suggest that the institutional form of passing was typically an American phenomenon. Contrary to the formerly slave-holding Caribbean or South American countries where “whiteness” and “blackness” were more fluid categories, some states in the United States of America enacted restrictive definitions of “race” until the 1980s. To illustrate the latter (relying on computer savvy students who come to class with laptops and internet access), I occasionally ask two volunteers to google the famous Susie Guillory Phipps case and quickly summarize their findings to the class. This court case demonstrates how strenuously the state of Louisiana sought to uphold the 1970 state law that declared that one-thirty-second African ancestry (that is, having one African great-great-great-grandparent) would make anyone legally black. Though Mrs. Phipps looked white and she also identified herself as white because she had been socialized as white, she lost her suit and was classified as black. To make our point more obvious, I also mention another famous case from 1967, when the prohibition of interracial marriages was ruled unconstitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia. Though these cases eventually affected the overthrow of the law defining individuals by the hypo-descent rule, they suggested the longstanding convention of racial passing as a strategy of upward mobility in a country where, according to Adrian Piper, “a white who acknowledges any African ancestry implicitly acknowledges being black—a social condition, more than an identity, that no white person would voluntarily assume, even in imagination” (427).

When dealing with passing anchored in American history, we also look at passing in a larger context, invoking the concept of passing to uncover the operations of race or racializing itself. If black and white can be conceived of as a performance, that is, black means passing for black and white means passing for white as Kwame Anthony Appiah claims (Patton 87), discourses of blackness and whiteness take a radically different turn in students’ interpretation of Larsen. In order to ensure it will happen I resort to the pedagogical device of dramatization. Over the years, getting students personally involved in the “making of race” has been an astonishing success. I simply ask five students to read out from Part I, Chapter 3 of Passing the respective parts of Clare, Irene, Gertrude, John Bellew, and the narrator. By vicarious participation, the students immediately feel embroiled in a comedy of errors, hilarious and painful, that they help bring about in their own voice, through their own acting. This episode involves three middle-class women passing in an elegant parlor, in the Bellews’ Chicago apartment. Except for Clare, the women are appalled by Bellew who upon entering affectionately but half-derisively greets his wife as “Nig.” Looking at Clare for directions, they find out from her acting that no matter how rude and insulting this game, she suavely participates in it, moreover, she also invites her friends to join in.

The black eyes fluttered down. “Tell them, dear, why you call me that.”
The man chuckled, crinkling up his eyes, not, Irene was compelled to acknowledge, upleasantly. He explained: Well, you see, it’s like this. When we were first married, she was as white as a lily. But I declare she’s getting’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.”
He roared with laughter. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his.
Gertrude after another uneasy shift in her seat added her shrill one. Irene, who had been sitting with lips tightly compressed, cried out: “That’s good!” and gave way to gales of laughter. She laughed and laughed. Tears ran down her cheeks. Her sides ached. Her throat hurt. She laughed on and on and on, long after the others had subsided. Until, catching sight of Clare’s face, the need for a more quiet enjoyment of this priceless joke, and for caution, struck her. At once she stopped (171).

In the course of our discussion, we point out that the man’s joke eliciting the supporting laughter of the women is a penetrating example to demonstrate how race, class and gender intersect to uphold the construction of the status quo. John Bellew makes his joke at the expense of his wife and invites her apparently white women friends to participate in the amusement. When he exposes Clare as a possible transgressor of white legitimacy, Bellew decks himself out as the master of ceremonies fully in control to pull all the strings himself. Owing to his seeming agency even to repeal the validity of his statements whenever he feels like doing so, he enjoys being not only the maker but also the teller of Clare’s “secret.” When his wife teasingly presses him to accept that she is colored, he snaps back with considerable confidence: ”nothing like that with me. I know you’re no nigger, so it’s all right. You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family” (171). Students can usually recognize traces of classic scenes of buffoonery here: all the characters except for the buffoon know what he does not, yet the make-belief goes on until the dramatic unmasking. Likewise, racist buffoon Bellew is ignorant of how he has exposed his own arbitrary power that could as well be shaken by the one he seeks to expose. What I often need to add, however, is Judith Butler’s insight into the racialized sexual dynamics of the scene, pointing out not only the white racist’s but the multiracial woman’s investment in the joke: “Clare exploits Bellew’s need to see only what he wants to see, working not so much the appearance of whiteness, but the vacillation between black and white as a kind of erotic lure” (172). Clare’s sexual power rests on her active contribution to Bellew’s play with the undecidability of his wife’s race.

Students are remarkably shrewd interpreting this scene, accounting for the possible cause of laughter. We usually agree that whatever the cause, this masquerading feminine laughter is reminiscent of a conflictual and universal laughter of the carnival as Bakhtin describes it in Rabelais and His World, in which “even the person who laughs is laughed at” (10). In the carnivalesque travesty the “double aspect of the world and human life” (6) appears “inside out” in a “continual shifting from the top to bottom, from front to rear” to delegitimate the designated locations of high and low, oppressor and oppressed, offering a “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established” order (10). The subversive “dialogical” laughter or carnivalesque laughter is a laughter of intertext and multiple identifications in Larsen’s Passing, with Clare, Irene, and Gertrude riding on an emotional roller coaster. Passing involves the multiracial women’s triple strategy of manipulating race, gender and class that requires the flaunting of excessive white femininity when the stakes are high. Discussing white femininity in more advanced level classes I also refer to Joan Riviere’s famous study “Femininity as a Masquerade,” while in doctoral classes I make students read the text itself. At whatever level, however, the simple dramatization of this complicated scene, as described above, not only helps students to empathize with characters but also gets them to experience different voices that accentuate what is going on in the text. When students take on roles (including that of the narrator), they hear the multiplicity of voices and see the packages in which we ordinarily and routinely contain things.

But race as a complex form of performativity also appears to be at work as the operation of passing in the earlier novel, Quicksand. In chapter 13 through chapter 15, Helga Crane is described as a racial and sexual other playing out her script as a seductive mulatta in the racialized female masquerade. Put another way, the Copenhagen sequence is also concerned with passing, this time Helga Crane constructing her identity as “a veritable savage,” “a curio” and “a peacock” to entice the popular painter, Axel Olsen, into marriage, thereby also promoting her relatives, the Dahls, in fashionable Danish society. To this effect, Helga frantically indulges in a shopping spree to process the female icon of the other, a sanitized racial image of the traditional exotic mulatta or vamp. At this point, I make sure students understand that Larsen’s text intimates the patriarchal institution in which the homosocial bonding of Uncle Poul (whose money lubricates the shopping expeditions) and Axel Olsen (whose artistic taste ensures the most acceptable packaging of Helga) join forces as prospective kin or allies to deck her out as a marketable item and an object of exchange. As a result, Helga changes into a parody of herself, a spectacle to gratify white male desire: “incited to make an impression, a voluptuous impression. She was dressed for it, subtly schooled for it. And after a little while she gave herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired” (74).

Passing as a racial and feminine masquerade played out in a white imperialist context comes into the open in the text when Olsen, failing to get Helga for an illicit sexual affair, proposes marriage to her: “The longing for you does harm to my work. You creep into my brain and madden me.” To clarify his point, he explains why he would benefit from this marriage:

‘It may be that with you, Helga, for wife, I will become great. Immortal. Who knows?
I didn’t want to love you, but I had to. That is the truth. I make of myself a present to you. For love.’ His voice held a theatrical note. At the same time he moved forward putting out his arms. His hands touched air. For Helga had moved back (86).

Reading this passage, students are guided toward the recognition that Olsen’s theatrical inter-racial desire is the white man’s desire for the irresistible vamp-mulatta, a fantasy affirming the white male supremacist’s status quo. bell hooks insightfully describes a similar strategy, that of sending up the “primitive” into the service of the Western tradition, when discussing Picasso’s appropriation of tribal objects side by side with the current white male fascination with inter-racial sexuality. Her insight is also applicable to the racial dynamics of the white artist’s infatuation with Helga, Olsen also claiming “the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for /his/ reconstruction of the masculine norm, for asserting /himself/ as /a/ transgressive desiring /subject/. (24). His anticipated sexual encounter with the mulatta holds out the hope of a conversion experience that alters his place (he will be immortalized, placed with the gods) through an exchange of goods: he gives his love as a present whereas he claims Helga herself in return. For all the glamorous rhetoric of this alluring economy of love, Olsen’s offer is clearly a white imperialist venture to colonize the colored other that he reduces to an instrument in order to affirm, indeed, enhance his own stature (Federmayer, New Negro Woman, 129).

When students capture some of the intricacies of these passing scenes involving passing for white, passing for black, and even passing for mulatta, they often happily remind themselves of contemporary narratives of parodic passing, racial impersonation and mimicry from their own movie experiences. With some brainstorming (effectively helped by American students or communications studies majors in class) we set up a short list including stories and/or performances parodying or simply spoofing passers or “wannabes” (Spike Lee’s School Daze, 1988; Eddie Murphy’s White Like Me, 1984), and dramatizing the world of subcultures (Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, 1990) as well as political conflicts inflected by racial and gender anxieties (Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, 1993).

Focusing on passing as a dramatic manifestation of race performatively constructed also helps steer students away from a preoccupation with “real” identity (“Helga/Clare/Irene searching for her identity”) or “authentic blackness” in general. Blues women, the black vernacular and black folk culture, as Hazel Carby (1984), Ann Ducille (1999), and Martin Favor (1999) argue, constitute only one possible modality of black culture. Indeed, as Carby claims, blackness has long been commonly identified with some “metaphoric folk,” a romantic evocation of a fictional rural people. This essentializing tendency to assume the folk as the legitimate bearer and representative of a racial/ethnic/national heritage rings familiar to my Hungarian students who all remember the phrase “but only from clear mountain springs” attributed to Béla Bartók’s adherence to untainted folk music, the wellspring of his compositions.4 In fact, he had committed himself to recording and researching Hungarian folk music and to creatively integrating it into his own works (his venture, by and large, coinciding with the period of the New Negro Renaissance), only to find out that Hungarian (and any) folk music was “impure” after all. His revisionary discovery was corroborated by his findings in the folk music he collected on the Balkans and in Africa.

Nella Larsen’s novels are likewise to remind students of polyphony, even cacophony, of all kinds: the “hybridity” of the African American novel (Bell 135), the multiplicity of voices in African American writing, and the great variety of African American literary traditions, including those that capture black urban female experiences. Reading Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing involves, then, not only a rewarding experience for Hungarian students to immerse themselves in a world beset by racial, gender, class, and sexual anxieties of multiracial female characters as rendered by a fascinating biracial woman writer but also having an intimation of the plenitude of literary experiments in black writing that would be inconceivable without her presence.


Works Cited

  • Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso.
  • Bhabha, Homi. 1994. “The Commitment to Theory.” The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge. 19-39.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT P.
  • Bell, Bernard. 1998. “Voices of Double Consciousness in African American Fiction: Charles W. Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, and Richard Right.” Teaching African American Literature. Eds. Maryemma Graham, Sharon Pineault-Burke, and Marianna White Davis. New York and London: Routledge. 132-140.
  • Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodes That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.
  • Carby, Hazel. 1987. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP.
  • Cronenberg, David. 1994. Dir. M. Butterfly. Burbank, CA : Warner Home Video.
  • Danticat, Edwige. 1994. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Soho.
  • Favor, J. Martin. 1999. Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance. Durham: Duke UP.
  • Federmayer, Eva. 2006. “American Studies in Hungary.” European Journal of American Studies 1: n. pag. Web. 20 August 2012.
  • —-. 1994. “The New Negro Woman and Masquerade: Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen.” (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest. Frankenberg, Ruth. 1997. Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham: Duke UP.
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1 I want to thank Karla Kelsey, Fulbright visiting professor at Eötvös Loránd University, for her insightful comments on my text.

2 For an elaboration of the white fantasy in this context, I assign graduate students A. Robert Lee’s “Multicultural Europe: Odds, Bets, Chances,” in MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace, 1997.

3 For the publication history and the interpretation of the two endings, I get my doctoral students to read John K. Young, “Teaching Texts’ Materiality: The Ends of Nella Larsen’s “Passing” in College English Vol. 66, No. 6 (July 2004).

4 These words (in Hungarian: “csak tiszta forrásból”) conclude Bartók’s Cantata Profana when the choir is eventually joined by the eldest son-turned-into-a-stag for an ecstatic melisma on “but only from clear mountain springs.”