Abstract

“‘Too high a price’: The ‘Terrible Honesty’ of Black Women's Work in Quicksand” assumes a New Historical lens to understand the novel through its historical context and, inversely, to reveal a new knowledge of history and culture through Larsen's writing. The author argues that Nella Larsen and her novel Quicksand are emblematic of Ann Douglass's vision of the intricately fused Harlem Renaissance/white modernist literary movement of the 1920s as expressed in her 1995 study, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. As a result, Larsen's liminal novel, her own identity, and even her heroine function as excellent examples of academe's increasingly complex contemporary interpretations of black and white literary production in the modernist American moment. The episodic adventures of Quicksand's heroine, Helga Crane, reveal the problematic interplay of desire and agency; of wanting, but being unable to carry out the necessary functions to achieve one's desired goals. This challenge, along with the implied recognition of inevitable homelessness, the marked impossibility of coexisting individual and communal identities, and the unfeasibility of sustaining desire point to Larsen's interface with the core concerns of the modernist literary project as well as the New Negro Movement. Moreover, Larsen's representation of the work roles available to black women reflects the tangible effects of the period's radical social changes while it illuminates the ways in which labor paradoxically allows and prevents the (often contradictory) actions necessary to bring one's desires to fruition. More specifically, Douglass's framework of the modernist's “terrible honesty” worldview operates as a useful lens with which to deconstruct the purpose and significance of Helga's labor roles, as depicted by Larsen. As such, each labor role—and its social context—allows Larsen to critique different elements of racist and sexist societies throughout the United States and Europe. This aspect of the article's analysis is enriched by an exploration of Larsen's participation in the construction of New Negro womanhood and the black flâneuse. The article concludes by employing the lens of “terrible honesty” to facilitate a reading of Helga Crane as Larsen's symbolic vision of the ill-fated Jazz Age literary moment.

This content is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.