A striking collection of two novels and three short stories, the entire output of a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, who was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship (in 1930), and whose literary career had ended by 1933. Larsen's novels are by far the more gripping (published here with the correct endings for the first time in decades), as each penetrates with clinical detachment into the psyche of sensitive, middle-class black women, trapped by both gender and color in desperate lives full of dreams deferred. Quicksand (1928) charts the course of Helga Crane, a spirited young teacher in a southern college, who realizes that the gospel of conformity and self- imposed segregation preached there isn't for her. Relocating to the heart of Harlem, the heady atmosphere of which first entrances and then disgusts her, she decides to visit Copenhagen to stay with her white mother's relatives. Offered the chance of marriage to a prominent painter, Helga flees in confusion instead, back to Harlem, where her quandary leads her to sudden salvation in a street mission and the subsequent eclipse of her identity as she becomes the wife of a rural Alabama preacher, undone by the birth of one unwanted child after another. Passing (1929) is even more violent in its sense of retribution for a black woman's attempt to live on both sides of the color line, as Clare Kendry rejects her heritage to such a degree that she marries a white bigot, only to find herself in time yearning for contact with other African- Americans. Found out by her husband, she pays for her deception with her life. Refined social drama on the surface, in which the black experience is impeccably detailed, but beneath the refinement seethes an emotional cauldron of race and paternalism—into which Larsen's heroines are plunged with brutal, deadly force. Melodramatic, certainly, but the message is still timely.
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